The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) (Paolo Sorrentino – Italy/France) 140 minutes
The first fifteen minutes of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty alone are enough to banish the memory of the fiasco that was This Must Be the Place. Day breaks in Rome, a choir sings on Gianocolo, early risers nonchalantly go about their business, a Japanese tour group is shown about the city’s antique sights. One of their number breaks away for a moment to take a picture of the cityscape, admires the view and then keels over with what appears to be a Stendhal Syndrome-induced heart attack. We then abruptly cut to a rip-roaring rooftop party, where revellers of all ages get their rocks off to pounding trashy Euro house. At the centre of it all is one Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who steps out of the film for a moment to introduce himself. The rooftop patio is his, overlooking the Colosseum, and it will be him we follow for the next two hours and more.
The clear reference here is Fellini, and most explicitly La dolce vita, which Jep, a successful journalist and frustrated novelist, has no difficulty living up. But if the film begins with a heavily loaded sense of déjà-vu, it is an openly avowed one. There is no gradually divulged portrait of the ennui and emptiness beneath the glitz and glamour of mondaine Rome – the emptiness is already a given. This is Berlusconi’s Italy, a country obsessed with reality TV and the trivial. The film itself is complicit in it, having been partly produced by Mediaset Premium, one of the high-end branches of the former Prime Minister’s media empire. Jep says at one point to a Communist novelist friend whom he rather cruelly scorns: "Flaubert wanted to write a novel about nothing; if he had ever met you, he could have written his masterpiece." The Great Beauty does not benefit quite to this extent from such a proximity to the vacuous but it is a great character portrait and has some magnificent set pieces.
Servillo, unrecognisable under mounds of make-up as Giulio Andreotti in Sorrentino’s Il Divo, here shows his true face, as a dapper old roué who begins to have second thoughts about the life he had led when he learns some news out of the blue. A man appears on his doorstep and tells him that his wife, deceased the day before, loved only Jep, whom she nonetheless mysteriously left forty years before. And so the edifice of smug certainty that is Jep’s life begins to be chipped away at. His cynicism starts to desert him, and with it his ability to protect himself from the ravages of time and ageing. He continues nonetheless to womanise, picking up slightly younger women who are themselves desperately trying to ward off physical decline – one, a 42-year-old, works part-time as a stripper in her father’s club to help finance her cosmetic enhancements. Servillo is one of the great actors of his generation, a man with a rubbery fizzog straight out of the Commedia dell’arte; he is at once charming, winsome and melancholy. His Jep is more together than all around him but that only serves to increase his desperate awareness of what has slipped away in his life. Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s script builds a fascinatingly complex character, the textures of which deepen as the film progresses, and Servillo’s performance is a tour de force of understated confidence.
Like Il Divo before it, The Great Beauty is flawed – it is overlong and its rhythm flags at times, and Sorrentino has a frustrating penchant for cramming quirks into his story – a disappearing giraffe and a mustering of storks that gathers on Jep’s patio on their way south. But the flaws, as in the previous film, are more than outweighed by its better qualities. Servillo’s performance is the most obvious, but there are fine comic turns throughout, particularly from Carlo Buccirosso (previously brilliant in Il Divo) as Jep’s lonesome playwright friend, Lello Cava. Sorrentino also has a deft touch for the burlesque. His party scenes are throbbing with energy and humour, and show those in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby up for the mess they are. The Great Beauty is not going to define this era in the way its illustrious monochrome predecessor did its own but it is a vibrant and literate comedy that is far more substantial than many European films of the moment.