Fellini and Antonioni clearly were on the mind of writer-director Paolo Sorrentino when he decided to make this extravagant observational piece about an aging Italian novelist-turned-journalist who reflects on the vacuity of his celebrity existence in the frenziedly garish era of Berlusconi and looks back on what might have been. “The Great Beauty” is visually wonderful and boasts some piercingly genuine moments, but it reflects the period in which it’s set by being a rather overblown exercise in artifice.
Toni Servillo, who looks a bit like reformist Czech Communist Alexander Dubcek, stars as Jep Gambardella, a writer who published one notable novel, “The Human Apparatus,” in his youth but has produced nothing serious since. Instead he determined to become the linchpin of Italian high society and succeeded in that ambition, ending up as the county’s most celebrated gossip columnist and a mainstay of the upscale party scene. But now—as he’s feted at a sixty-fifth birthday party that forms the film’s ornate opening setpiece, a sumptuous montage of gyrating bodies and throbbing music—he questions his entire life, which has come to consist in an endless succession of such events, conversation with a coterie of other dead-end pseudo-intellectuals in which he stands out for flippancy that can suddenly turn cutting, and soulful walks through the streets of Rome.
Jep’s days are punctuated with assignments made by his editor, a dwarf who cannily sends him on interviews that reawaken his recollection of what he once was. Her instructions take him to such oddballs as a performance artist who astonishes her jaded audience by literally pounding her head into a stone wall, a spiritual advisor and healer whose habit of listening to clients in assembly-line fashion has made him fantastically wealthy, and a couple of very different ecclesiastics, one a cardinal (Roberto Herlitzka) destined for the papacy whose interests are purely mundane and the other an aged, Mother Theresa-style nun (Sonia Gessner) who’s treated as a saint and represents an ideal of self-abnegation Jep can barely comprehend, the antithesis of the world in which he’s chosen to exist.
But Gambardella’s interest in living is reawakened, even if only sporadically, by other encounters. One is with the husband of the sweetheart of his youth, memories of whom make him truly feel again, even if his tearful presence at her funeral has something of a calculated performance about it. The other is a visit to an old friend who manages a strip joint; the man introduces Jep to his daughter Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), an aging dancer who briefly becomes his companion. Such connections bring momentary departure from his usual air of dejection and cynicism amid the effortful frivolity of his existence—an attitude that can break out into verbal cruelty, as when he savagely lashes out against a leftist acquaintance whose claims to moral superiority he systematically demolishes.
All of this—and much more—is presented against the backdrop of the city of Rome itself, presented, through cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s voluptuous widescreen images, in all its wonder and grandeur, the ancient monuments, fountains, churches and riverside walkways offering a sense of permanence beside which the fleeting lifespan of any human being is infinitesimal. Though various themes jostle with one another throughout, the fundamental message of “The Great Beauty” seems merely to be that in the end no single person, however celebrated or influential, can compare with the glory of the Eternal City, and that it’s wise to enjoy the simple pleasures the world around us affords for as long as we’re given to do so. Thus Jep’s observation at one point that his life amounts to nothing is answered by Sister Maria’s injunction to get back to the root of things, which in his case means returning to the genuine emotions and even idealism of his youth.
Sorrentino’s film is obviously about many things, and susceptible to varied interpretations. In a very real sense it’s also a love letter Italian cinema itself, crammed with references to past pictures both obvious and arcane. But even those who find it overstuffed, opaque and derivative will be bowled over by its sheer pictorial extravagance and visual sheen. You might come out of it exhausted—two-and-a-half hours of excess can feel a tad excessive itself. Still, it offers a feast worth sampling, even if a little heartburn might be expected afterward.