It takes a real artist to find poetry in the ordinary and an even greater one to make this poetry feel universal, yet this is precisely what Paolo Sorrentino does in The Great Beauty. His love song to Rome has been compared to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and with reason, for his is an homage not to that specific film but to that untranslatable adjective of “Romanità”, a feeling of Roman-ness captured so uniquely in Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece. In that film, Marcello Mastroianni played a young journalist who abandoned himself to the pleasures and horrors of living in the Italian capital. From holy apparitions, to strange sea creatures and orgies and parties galore,La Dolce Vita captured a feeling of hopeful decadence and combined the postmodern worries of a new generation with the timeless richness of Rome.
In The Great Beauty, Sorrentino takes this concept into the future by aging his subject and having him look back trying to come up with meaning to what so far has been an aimless life. The director’s muse, Toni Servillo, plays writer Jep Gambardella, whom we first meet in the midst of his own birthday celebration, an obscenely grand Eurotrash party that makes the festivities in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby seem like a wake in comparison. Seemingly unimpressed, not to mention unmoved by the grand debauchery all around him, Gambardella introduces us to his world of formerly-beautiful-people, up-and-coming starlets, influential clergy members and one or two regular folk whose only purpose seem to be to ground him.
In what is a largely anecdotical film, Sorrentino follows Jep from party to funeral to nostalgic stripclub, where we realize that Gambardella is nothing if not the Mastroianni character from La Dolce Vita surprised that he’s lived long enough to tell the tale. Heightening his characteristic use of tracking shots and zooms, Sorrentino’s camera captures Rome in a way we’ve never seen it onscreen before. His sweeping vistas and the lens’ urge to take in more of this great beauty seem to be in denial of Jep’s inability to find contentment when there’s so much pleasure surrounding him. It is by concentrating on this dichotomy between pleasure and endless melancholy that Sorrentino delivers what might be his greatest film to date.
The director weaves together vignettes in which nothing is connected to what we will see next or what happened before, making for a great metaphor whose intention is to evoke the grand mess of city life, but he allows small gems of moments to slip by without making a big deal out of them (even if some of these include a giraffe or a certain French legend), as if he’s asking us to open our eyes and perceive the miracles that take place around us on a daily basis. Whether Sorrentino is religious or not, he’s a keen observer of life and not unlike Bosch, masterfully paints a picture in which sin and virtue walk side by side. His The Great Beauty is an operatic work of art in which he see chaos and dares to try and control it.