Life is a fictitious narrative, an imaginary construct, proclaims The Great Beauty, a fantastic, hypnotic Italian film about art and folly, nostalgia and distraction, contempt and affection. These big sweeping ideas are given a big sweeping presentation as director Paolo Sorrentino swirls his camera through the whirlpool of the high life where partygoers dance in trains that go nowhere—not unlike their lives.
At the (empty) center of it all is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a writer who penned a great novella years ago, but has worked mostly as a journalist since. He attends performance art showcases, where a nude woman head butts a wall, and describes the performance aspects of attending a funeral. Staring at his ceiling, he sees the sea, which flashes sense memories of his past. These episodes are all dazzling set pieces, and as precisely and exquisitely filmed as minor but equally enchanting scenes featuring a knife thrower, a football player juggling a soccer ball on his underwear-clad body, or a vanishing giraffe.
The images are not superficial, even if the characters sometimes are. Sorrentino and his cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi play remarkably well with light and shadow to provoke emotion. When Jep is talking to a man in one scene that disappears into the darkness, it has both literal and figurative meaning and power.
The Great Beauty slowly reveals its plot, which has the aging, jaded Jep examining his life and searching for the moment of great beauty. He forms a friendship and possible romance with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) the daughter of an old friend. Her father bemoans the fact that Ramona wants to be a stripper, and wishes she would do drugs so they would have something in common. Such candor is at the heart of the film, as when Jep punctures the fragile ego of a woman he knows. His terrific speech calls her on her lying about the sacrifices she has made, and her efforts to mask a life in tatters.
All of the film’s characters are desperately trying to hold on to their dignity amid regrets, Jep included. The cynicism on display is magnified near the film’s end as Jep has an extended encounter with Sister Maria (Sonia Gessner), a 104 year-old holy woman he is supposed to interview. Although he is stymied at a dinner party he throws for her, Jep later has an audience with Sister Maria, and they inadvertently discuss the meaning and purpose of life. This scene provides a magical and poignant ending to a magical and poignant film.
While The Great Beauty repeatedly invokes Fellini, and his masterpiece La Dolce Vita in particular, Sorrentino’s outstanding film succeeds quite well on its own.
The Great Beauty opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and film critic. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming book, Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Follow him on twitter @garymkramer.