There’s something wholly unique about The Great Beauty, a mixture between a majestic fantasy and a bleak reality. Such a combination of topics is difficult to balance but director Paolo Sorrentino keeps his picture afloat and manages to create a surreal and wondrous piece of artwork. While I feel a little unsure of the purpose of The Great Beauty throughout the entirety of its duration (at times the movie seems to wander from scene to scene), the sheer amazement of the picture is truly dazzling and spectacular.
Much like other films in 2013, such as The Wolf of Wall Street, The Great Beauty is about the exuberance of the elite. Within the first ten minutes, Sorrentino reveals the picture’s most energetic and flamboyant scene where Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a sophisticated and famous Italian writer, throws a huge party in his home in Rome to celebrate his 65th birthday. Jep spares no shortage of extravagance; there’s wine, dancers, and entertainers. Sorrentino conducts a huge musical number where all of the party’s attendants (composing mostly of middle-aged men and women half their age) center all around Jep. The camera then moves towards a close-up of Jep’s face, which conveys not happiness but gloom. This is the crucial point in The Great Beauty, where Sorrentino tells us that Jep is upset not only with his life but Rome itself.
Jep is foremost an intellectual. He prides himself as an artist and boasts of his integrity at others, mocking those who make pretentious claims about artwork itself. He’s also written a book that despite being the only one of his authorship has a great deal of respect and influence in the literary world in Italy. But Jep is also reaching a turning point in his life. It’s clear that Jep misses his youth and wishes to relive it. He uses botox to keep his face from wrinkling and slicks his hair back to make him appear more stylish. Inside, however, Jep realizes that he has come to a time where he finally needs to accept his age. He learns that his ex-girlfriend, whom he hasn’t seen in over forty years, has just died and soon apprehends the superficiality that surrounds him. Jep is searching for acceptance and meaning in the calamity of Rome. He sees truth in his friend Ramano (Carlo Verdone), who is writing a play that’s about to enter the theater scene, and a high-class stripper played by Sabrina Ferilli, though even they seem to be plagued with the same concerns. Jep struggles to realize the solutions to his problems, which stems to the current condition of Italy itself. Sorrentino emphasizes that Jep is a metaphor for Rome, a seemingly beautiful place that has no true foundation to rest on (Servillo’s performance makes the character seem like a double edges sword with two split personalities; it’s an incredibly devout and expressive performance that deserves the highest of praise). Employing beautiful cinematography, Sorrentino displays some of the city’s grandest achievements from the Colosseum to various Roman statues that contrast to the depravity that lurks around the corner, with many characters in the ensemble going through an emotional breakdown.
Ambition is plentiful in The Great Beauty and it’s undeniable that Federico Fellini was a big influence for Sorrentino, who captures the mayhem of the famed Italian filmmaker. Many of the elements of The Great Beauty would fit perfectly in a Fellini movie, like a midget who is Jep’s editor or a giraffe that abruptly appears in the middle and then vanishes. While Sorrentino doesn’t quite fully capture the cerebral feel of Fellini (a few sections of The Great Beauty feel inconsistent and dull), this is a worthy homage and bears the same moral consequences. The ingenuity of the picture is best exhibited by one of the movie’s final scenes, where Jep has dinner with an elderly nun, who, in a few lines, divulges more truth about Jep’s life than he realized before. Not all of The Great Beauty fits together, but its greatest moments shine brightly.