The Great Beauty (2013) *****
Dir. Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Toni Servillo
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty opens with a bang - literally. A cannon blasts right into our faces - its explosive force signalling the beginning of the greatest party sequence - bar none - in movie history. Not a single screen revelry comes even close. The first few minutes of this movie throbs and pulsates with the most gorgeous, dazzling, opulent images of triumphant excess ever to strut and swagger before our eyes. This polychromatic orgy of beautiful people and their devil-may-care debauchery is the kind of sordid, celebratory saturnalia that the movies seem to have been invented for.
The party isn't just debauchery for debauchery's sake (though I'd settle for that), but the sequence actually builds deftly to the utterly astounding entrance of the film's main character. On just the right hit of music, at just the right cut-point, our eyes catch the tell-tale jiggle of the delectable jowls of the smiling, long-faced, twinkle-eyed and unequalled sexiest-ugly movie star of our time. We are dazzled, delighted and tempted to cheer as his presence comes like an explosion as great as the aforementioned cannon blast.
Playing the former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, Toni Servillo knocked us on our collective butts in Sorrentino's Il Divo. Here, Servillo continues to electrify - this time etching a very different "Il Divo" - Jep Gambardella, the crown prince of Roman journalism. Jep is a one-novel-wonder, resting on the literary laurels of a single work of genius from his youth, who now, at this august stage of existence, has earned celebrity as a hack scribe of gossipy, sardonic puff pieces for one of Italy's most influential rags.
Jep is surrounded by a seemingly infinite number of losers who think they're winners, as well as a veritable army of the rich and famous and their hangers-on. We find Jep at the epicentre of the aforementioned on-screen party - one we wish would never end. Alas it must - at least until the next one. Rest assured there will be plenty more revelries, but between the indulgences, we follow the powerful and bored-with-his-power Jep as he reaches a crisis point in his 65th year of life. He knows he's not lived up to his promise, but he's still a master wordsmith and puffs himself up with his dazzling prose and his expertise at self-puffery.
He's surrounded by worshippers, but their adulation means nothing to him. Gorgeous women throw themselves at Jep, but he doesn't even much enjoy sex. He longs for a love that escaped him in his youth and tries to find it in the rapturously beautiful daughter of a pimp. His best friend, as best a friend that someone like Jep could ever hope for, is desperate to make a mark for himself as a literary figure but can only think of using Jep as a subject for a book.
Most of all, Jep seems happiest when he's alone. That said, even when he's surrounded by slavering hangers-on, he appears even more solitary than when he's by himself, but at least his private brand of emptiness is more palatable than the sheer nothingness of those in his ultimately pathetic coterie of nothingness - the nothingness of a ruling class who take and take and take all the excess there is to be had, and then some. Italy is on the brink of ruin, but the ruling class is in denial so long as they can cling to celebrity - even if that celebrity is in their own minds.
With The Great Beauty, Sorrentino is clearly paying homage to Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (with dollops of 8 1/2), but this is no mere nod to cinematic mastery - he explores a world the late maestro visited half-a-century ago and uses it as a springboard into contemporary Italy and most importantly, as a flagrantly florid rumination upon the decline of culture, the long-ago loss of youthful ideals and the deep melancholy that sets in from Jep seeking answers to why the woman he loved the most left him behind to his own devices. Set against the backdrop of a historic Rome in ruins, the empire that fell so mightily, we plunged into a dizzying nocturnal world as blank and vacant as the eyes of a ruling class that rules nothingness.
Jep is clearly set upon an odyssey by Sorrentino - one that might have been avoided if he could only recognize what he sees in a mirror. Men like Jep, however, have a hard time recognizing the clear reality that stares them in the face and the final third of Sorrentino's masterpiece plunges Jep and the audience through a looking glass in search of a truth they (nor, for that matter, we) might never find.
But the ride will have been worth it.
"The Great Beauty" is nominated for a 2014 Best Foreign Language Oscar and currently in theatrical release via Mongrel Media, playing AT TIFF BELL LIGBHTBOX in Toronto.