The most sumptuous, sophisticated and emotionally fulfilling walk you’ll ever take through Rome, without setting foot in Italy’s magical capital, The Great Beauty more than earns its title.
Your guide will be Jep Gambardella, an aging socialite who once wrote a book so incredible, he’s been living off its success ever since. He hasn’t really been doing anything in a long time — he’s mostly living the sweet life, or as Italians call it, “la dolce vita.”
A relentless bon vivant, Gambardella throws parties at his apartment, which faces the Coliseum. Other days find him wandering the streets, reflecting on his life and experiences. Sometimes, he stops and stares intensely; the audience is then shown what he’s thinking. These are sights worth documenting. Images to make you ask yourself how a man with such a vision never wrote another novel.
You won’t be the only one to wonder; this is a question the protagonist keeps getting from his friends. He seems elusive. His answers suggest the same thing: he has no idea where all this time went. He has just celebrated his 65th birthday, which has filled him with both ennui and a sudden feeling of urgency. He no longer feels free to do things that do not bring him pleasure.
Because the film is impressionistic, conveying feelings by scenes connected thematically if not narratively, The Great Beauty is a challenge to describe. It is unconcerned with storylines, antagonists or a plot as we know it. The director takes the free flow of consciousness and musicality of a Terrence Malick film, and infuses it with Felliniesque caricatures.
The end result is spellbinding, combining spirituality with farce. In a different film, it would have been odd to see Apple products share the screen with ancient monuments. Not here. The Great Beauty is never dissonant — its strength lies in its contrasts. There is an underlying sadness to its humour, and a comicality to its sorrow.
While Toni Servillo, who plays the lead role with dignity and charm, is undeniably a strong presence, he never obstructs the way, speaks too much, or takes up too much screen time — he is there when we need him to be.
The real star, however, is Rome. The city fills you with the sort of epiphany you get from encountering art in nature that is so overwhelmingly soulful, it is at once all-encompassing and far out of reach. So all you can do is stand and look. It’s useless to try to capture the moment. You just know it’s there, and soon won’t be. Perhaps that’s what kills the Asian tourist who collapses in the film’s stunning prologue, having seemingly encountered too much beauty to handle while sightseeing.
But don’t worry, you’ll come out of The Great Beauty safe and satisfied. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, it is long, and yet the end still comes all too soon.
The film recently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and is nominated for an Oscar in the same category. The film is directed by Paolo Sorrentino (This Must Be The Place), who has made one of the finest films of 2013, and certainly the best to come out of Italy in years. Watch him closely. We may have a new great director on our hands.
The Great Beauty opens in Quebec theatres on Jan. 24.