The Great Beauty might well be the finest film released this year. Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian writer-director, excelled himself with previous efforts such as The Consequences of Love and Il Divo, but this is perhaps his greatest achievement so far. Known for his lavish mise en scene, pumping soundtracks and audacious camera work, The Great Beauty takes all of Sorrentino’s tricks and turns them up to 11.
The story is a modern day throwback to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; Jep Gambardella is a jaded playboy journalist who has just mourned his 65th birthday. Surrounded by politicians, artists, writers and reality TV personalities, Jep begins to question his purpose in life as the champagne begins to go flat and the last guests have stumbled home. His existential malaise is heightened by the news of an old flame’s passing- the only love of his life.
The Great Beauty is not your typical Hollywood film; there is no great journey, no moment of realisation, but a series of small happenings. We observe Jep as he observes his beloved Rome, wandering through stone courtyards, catching glimpses of the precocious local nuns, a flock of birds from his balcony. It is clear he is in love with the sights and the sounds of the city, as well as the parties, but is that enough to live on for Jep?
The film is so rich in its sound and imagery that it is almost overwhelming. We are immediately thrown into a raucous party that would make Berlusconi proud (indeed the film is partially inspired by the excess of his tenure), with throbbing euro trance and glistening, swooping camera movements that captures every shuffle of the party’s lurid clientele. Every frame in the film is a delight; a fruit grove littered with orange baubles in the morning, a prodigious child artist creating a swirling masterpiece.
Although the film could easily drown in its own beauty, it is glued together by Toni Servillo’s marvellous performance as Jep. A Sorrentino mainstay, Servillo has a chameleon quality which allows him to move from grinning charisma to hangdog pathos in a moment. In one sense Jep is cruel, snobbish and spoiled, and yet there is an inherent charm and humanity to him. We believe that this is a man who wants to change and be loved. The tragedy running through the film is the feeling that this will not come to pass.