Rome in all its splendor and superficiality, artifice and significance, becomes an enormous banquet too rich to digest in one sitting in Paolo Sorrentino’s densely packed, often astonishing “The Great Beauty.” A tribute to, and castigation of, the city whose magnificence has famously entrapped its residents in existential crises, the pic follows a stalled author gradually awakening from the slumber of intellectual paralysis. Very much Sorrentino’s modern take on the themes of Fellini’s “La dolce vita,” emphasizing the emptiness of society amusements, “Great Beauty” will surprise, perplex and bewitch highbrow audiences yearning for big cinematic feasts.
With a narrative that feels more like a line of dashes than a continuous stroke, the film is certain to give indigestion to some, who may dismiss it as a work of cinephile posing rather than genuine depth; never mind that the same censure was leveled at “La dolce vita” 53 years ago. The comparison is more than just casual: Like Fellini’s masterpiece, “The Great Beauty” uses an existentially exhausted figure as a Dantesque guide through the decadence of modern Roman life, presenting a panoply of characters with only minimal exaggeration.
Things literally start off with a bang as the noontime cannon on the Janiculum Hill is fired, leading to a montage of Japanese tourists and local eccentrics among the area’s Risorgimento monuments, the latter characters recalling the menagerie of women at the spa in “8½.” From there Sorrentino jumps to a nighttime outdoor birthday bash for Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), jam-packed with people gyrating as suggestively as pole dancers, in a pulsating scene shot like a liquor advertisement (a neon Martini sign is inescapable).
Jep is a journalist whose one novel, “The Human Apparatus,” haunts him as a reminder of unrealized promise. In the long years since it won awards, he’s earned a healthy living with less challenging fare while entertaining the upper bourgeoisie on his fabulous terrace overlooking the Colosseum. His associates are a mix of businessmen, neurotic wives, wannabe authors and well-to-do matrons who pass the time outdoing each other with hollow statements exposing their self-involvement. It’s an accurate and damning group portrait, only barely updated from those depicted by Fellini, Scola and the Antonioni of “La notte.”
The promise of Jep’s early life is revived when the husband of his first lover, Elisa, tells him that her diaries declared her continued love for him. Memories of their long-ago encounter have a freshness that stands in sharp contrast to the exhausted pleasures of the present, and the feelings begin to germinate even as he conducts a relationship with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a superannuated stripper (her character needs a bit more development). Further awakening comes with the arrival of Sister Maria (Sonia Gessner), an ancient holy woman whose simple statements shame the convoluted declarations of the demimonde.
As with “Il Divo” and “This Must Be the Place,” Sorrentino continues to tackle major topics using an extraordinary combination of broad brushstrokes and minute detail. Passion via the intellect has become his trademark, well suited to this dissection of empty diversions, indulged in by latter-day Neros fiddling while Rome burns. The helmer also reveals his immersion in the great Italian cinema of the past, and even when every ingredient can’t be identified, the individual flavors will be familiar to most cineastes. A cameo by Fanny Ardant comes straight from Anna Magnani’s brief moment in “Fellini’s Roma,” informed by the heady perfume of that underrated muse Caterina Boratto. When Jep tells Ramona he’s taking her to a sea monster, images of the final sequence of “La dolce vita” spring to mind, just as a magician recalls the “Asa nisi masa” of “8½.”
It would be wrong, however, to think of “The Great Beauty” as a work dependent on, rather than indebted to, these predecessors. The pic opens with a quote from Louis-Ferdinand Celine, “Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.” At the end, Sister Marie speaks of the importance of roots. Both concepts are key to the film; for Sorrentino, as for thousands of travelers and artists, the impossibly rich history of the Eternal City offers equal doses of imagination and solidity, her glories retaining the power to inspire and stupefy.
There’s something about Servillo’s manic smile that always suggests world-weariness; he lacks the seductive lassitude of Marcello Mastroianni’s Fellini figures, but he’s aiming for something else, specifically the waste of a promising intellect in thrall to emptiness. Sorrentino populates his film with some of the strongest actors in Italy, thesps like Galatea Ranzi and Roberto Herlitzka who make small roles memorable with the force of their understanding.
As always, Luca Bigazzi’s lensing is a joy, his elegant crane and dolly shots matched by meticulous compositions. Rome has rarely looked better, resplendent in baroque tonalities, showing off the city’s palaces, aqueducts and fountains. Even the final shot at the close of the credits, when the camera almost pans to St. Peter’s, the thwarted expectation of the basilica’s towering presence is itself a statement of the Church’s omnipresence. Romano (Carlo Verdone) says that after 40 years, Rome has disappointed him; in reality, perhaps he’s disappointed Rome.