When you look at a film like The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino’s story of an older Italian libertine flitting through life from party to party, it’s difficult not to think of La Dolce Vita, the 1960 classic about a journalist’s week in Rome attempting to find some inspiration from the Roman nightlife. It is, in many ways, the exact same movie. It doesn’t have the same sort of formal constraints of Fellini’s epic, no taking place over the course of a specific week here, but the parallels are quite noticeable. Sorrentino’s stand-in for Marcello Mastroianni is Toni Servillo, whose Jep Gambardella begins his 65th year as a passive former writer and sometimes journalist nominally covering the art scene of Rome as he moves from party to party and bed to bed. Jep is a fixture of the scene without ever particularly conforming to it. He is ever the critic, just as likely to spend his evenings commenting on the culture and actions of those surrounding him as he is chasing his next sensual experience. Without much of a structured plot to speak of, the film is content simply following Jep as he continues to live his life.
As one would expect from a movie following the escapades and emotional crises of a man turning 65, mortality is an undercurrent in The Great Beauty. The film begins and ends with death, and the specter of death hangs over the proceedings for much of its 142 minute run time. Jep’s response to these themes, though, is intriguing. It’s less about the loss of a loved one, and more about the loss of potential that person’s life represented, the potential to inspire him and get him moving and writing again. In many ways, Jep is still riding on the coattails of a successful and well-received novel he wrote when he first moved to Rome nearly 40 years prior, and must constantly explain to all of those around him why he never bothered to write a follow-up. He is a bit of a quandary, a man in his twilight years who knows he’s wasted his life, knows what he and everyone around him are doing is meaningless, and chooses (at least on an active level) not to care. He’s not some raging id, but a sort of intellectual apathetic nihilist (or perhaps existentialist) who calls everyone, and by extension himself, on their collective garbage without bothering to offer up an alternative. Again, this is not entirely novel, as Jep remains at his core a reinterpretation of Marcello Rubini, but Sorrentino and Servillo are reaching for something more than simply homage.
The Jep character is not the sort of person you can entirely hang a film on, and The Great Beauty bridges the gap with its production design. Having a city like Rome to shoot is certainly a boon, and the cinematography is gorgeous, but special attention should be paid to the lighting and set design. Shadows fly all over the screen, obscuring faces and eyes, bathing backgrounds in darkness to accentuate specific works of art or sets. It is, in its own way, another reference to Fellini and La Dolce Vita, aping the sort of monochromatic visuals you get from black and white cinema. It’s a striking approach that often gives the scenes the feel of a minimalist play, evoking the sort of otherworldly little corner of the Earth these bizarre souls have carved out for themselves. The score provides the needed foundation to hold everything up. Sumptuous, indulgent direction is what you need from a film like this, and Sorrentino is up for the task. This really is some of the best production design of the year, which makes it at the very least entertaining, but is it compelling?
If The Great Beauty has a problem (and it does have a problem), it’s rooted in the desire to make sure everything has a greater purpose. It would be difficult to pull off a sort of flighty film where Jep just stumbles through his life and never learns anything, so there’s this lingering sense that they’ll eventually try to tie it all together into a thematic whole. The difficulty with doing this is underselling it a touch at the beginning. Much of the early movements of the film attempts to revel in the pretension and hypocrisy of the empty bourgeois art community of the casually rich, but at the same time it doesn’t do quite enough to distance itself from that selfsame culture, and finds itself incidentally subsumed by it. It’s a problem that can easily be overcome by maintaining a strong through-line of character for the rest of the duration, but the final act (if you can even refer to a film like this in relation to an act structure) also doesn’t quite work. Sorrentino reaches out for the ecstatic, attempting a small scale but deceptively grand unifying series of moments based around a character introduced late in the proceedings, only to fall tantalizingly short and leave you wanting just in time for the credits to roll.
When you consider the failings of The Great Beauty, they are not particularly dire. Yes, the inability for the film to stick its landing does leave it feeling more empty than it likely should, which is a shame, but there are worse transgressions to commit on film. There is a surface-level enjoyment of the work of Sorrentino and Servillo that is difficult to deny, and even though it doesn’t particularly add up to anything memorable or worthwhile, the journey offers some undeniable aesthetic cinematic pleasure that is its own reward. It’s not a great or lasting reward, but it remains a somewhat slight experience that is worth having.