Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, superb) turns 65 at the start of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, by which point it has been some 40 years since the publication of his only novel, The Human Apparatus, 40 years Jep seems to have devoted to living some version of la dolce vita, establishing himself as a society journalist while somehow earning enough to purchase a luxury apartment overlooking the coliseum, to making himself an essential component of his city’s cultural life, both as commentator and member of its elite. I hesitate to apply the verb “work” to Jep’s career—to appear to be making an effort would seem anathema to Jep’s very being. Indeed, among the film’s motifs is the image of Jep reclining, in sun-draped hammock or on comfy looking bed. Self-effacing yet ruthless in his critique of others, glamorous in the most relaxed way imaginable, Jep has constructed a sort of fortress around himself, one that others cannot penetrate and that he himself cannot apparently escape from. Is that fortress, in some half-metaphysical, half-entirely literal sense, Rome? Among other things, The Great Beauty—which cries out to be called by its original Italian La grande bellezza—is an homage to all that’s delicious, decadent and disappointing about 21st century Rome, an empire long-fallen yet still slowly fading or withering in the honey-sun, while wearing an immaculate pair of hand-made leather shoes.
The film’s first major set-piece—there are many—surveys the ostensibly fabulous but, it seems to me, kind of lame party celebrating Jep’s birthday, replete with terrible techno, line dancing, a screaming woman, mariachis, and a very friendly variation on dwarf tossing. (The dwarf in question is not mere Fellini-esque cliché; she’s Jep’s editor and one of the film’s central, if not exactly developed, characters.) Jep’s is a world where there’s always a party and the party feels always almost over, continuing not because it’s too much fun, but rather, because these particular partygoers don’t know how to do much else, and it’s too late in life to learn. I love that fact that The Great Beauty is about cultured people older than we’re accustomed to watching navigate this kind of existentialist-bacchanalian terrain, people old enough to not stumble for even a moment of over my use of “Fellini-esque,” the sort of people for whom a fleeting apparition of Fanny Ardant is freighted with meaning. Presumably, these same cultured older people are the sort content to watch Jep wander a non-sequitur-laden Rome with no special agenda, to amble through his mildly aching memories of young love lost, to monitor his curious liaison with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a fairly sophisticated stripper by vocation, and to do all this for 142 minutes. While I didn’t find The Great Beauty to be the masterpiece others have claimed it to be, I truly hope that there are still those who are willing to immerse themselves in its sauntering without becoming impatient. It invites us to a world not dead but dying, that invokes a cinema long passed but not passé, a wry way of regarding the old world that’s somewhat shapeless but never charmless. Sorrentino is only in his early 40s, but The Great Beauty suggests that he is already more than prepared for the listless regrets of old age. I hope there are still movies as melancholy and knowing, as well crafted and daringly aimless as this one when he turns 65.