The film fairly quickly descends into a series of vignettes and scenes that look and sound like you've stepped into a fantastically loopy rave with techno mariachi and group dancing. But unlike another contemporary director of excess, Baz Luhrmann, Sorrentino has equal, if not more, skill at conveying the melancholy that undergirds decadence.
Jep is a 65-year-old man who published a single novel The Human Apparatus years ago and is currently an art journalist for a magazine run by a dwarf. To become a king of the high life was an ambition of Jep's when he came to Rome as a young man, but in fulfilling that goal, he wasted his intellectual promise.
Jep's concerns throughout the film are existential; filmgoers looking for a plot won't find a clear one here. Yet the film is rewarding if approached primarily as an experience of episodes rather than a story. A good third of the film is simply moving between spectacles some parties, some art with little distinction between the two.
A satire of Rome's contemporary art scene is filled with dramatic and pretentious types Talia Concept (a performance artist who talks about "extra-sensorial vibrations" and head-butts an aqueduct), a knife-thrower, a crying girl who paints as she sobs and others. What's most fascinating about this satire is Sorrentino's ability to mock these artists' silliness while also conveying their dead earnestness. Many satirists are unable to achieve any kind of depth to their characters the goal is solely to mock and to do this effectively, the satirist engages in as much distance as possible. There's an appealing danger and discomfort in Sorrentino's satire because the objects of his satire feel close and three-dimensional, rather than cartoonish.
Servillo plays Jep to perfection. He is able to convey in equal parts jaded cynicism, an underutilized intellect always searching for someone to attack, and the longing for something deeper. We meet three of the women that Jep loves, and the director suggests that love could be an antidote to excess Jep's search for something more than the high life starts when he learns that his first love has died from her husband. Her husband also tells Jep that Jep was her one true love in spite of her marriage. The most interesting and fully-drawn of the women Jep loves, is his friend's daughter Ramona, a 42-year-old stripper. His friend asks Jep to find Ramona a rich husband, but Jep winds up in love with her.
During the latter half of the movie, a saint comes to Rome from Africa. While her presence is initially comedic (she eats only roots), her presence gradually becomes profound and meaningful.
Is there a single review that fails to compare The Great Beauty to a Fellini picture? Is it a tribute to 8 1/2? Another La Dolce Vita? The implication is that Sorrentino is the lesser of the two directors for repeatedly quoting Fellini, but this film has enough of its own dazzling magic that it should show up on several (highbrow) best of the year lists.
The Great Beauty is both a critique and decadent tribute to Rome. If you like Fellini films, but are not married to the idea of Fellini as a genius, you'll like this just as much as any of his. Of note: Fellini's films were initially savaged - his directorial talent was not immediately apparent to the critics or audiences who saw his films. The Great Beauty demands multiple viewings to tease out the full meaning, but that's a testament to its complexity.
The power of The Great Beauty is two-fold: we get a complex character study of Jep and an undeniably gorgeous visual experience. Even if you find its running time far too long (I did), this is a film that you can't look away from. Two shots in particular are both breathtaking and wonderfully absurd, one featuring a giraffe among the ruins and the other featuring flamingos that scatter when breathed upon. Italy has nominated the film for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award.
Do you plan to see this film? What is the best foreign film you've seen this year?