Spectacle is everything in Paolo Sorrentino’s fabulistic Roman candle The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), and why not? He’s a grand visualist and ringleader of chaos whose talents might remind you of Fellini and Scorsese. Like those directors, however, his films can also suffer for lack of story. It’s almost as though the images come piling up one after another with such rapidity that a framework must be created for them, rather than the other way around. Whatever might have inspired The Great Beauty — Italy’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards — it doesn’t come close to sustaining the resulting film. But what a show.
The guide to Sorrentino’s circus is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a writer who has been living off the fumes of one rapturously received novella published decades earlier. It’s not entirely clear how he’s currently able to afford his fabulous apartment with a terrace overlooking the Coliseum; but for the occasional newspaper article, Jep spends his days wandering the city and his nights attending or throwing one party after another.
But if Jep appears to the happiest man in all of Rome, the film offers an ongoing counterargument, as if trying to convince us that he’s living a life of thinly masked despair. One means to this point is that for all his seemingly infectious exuberance, Jep is surrounded by a party retinue reeking of cosseted wealth and self-satisfaction, miserable individuals he doesn’t hold in nearly as much contempt as the film does. The closest Jep comes to such judgment is his public dismantling of an insufferable friend’s braying, hypocritical Marxist martyrdom. Even during this takedown, though, Jep shows no sadism or satisfaction, only a quiet disbelief that he needs to explain to her that she and her friends are morally compromised. He’s not enraged so much as he’s disappointed: being angry involves too much work, and Jep is inclined to lazy pleasures. Explaining why he never got around to writing another book over so many decades, he says simply, “Rome makes you waste a lot of time.”
Wasting time is something of a theme in The Great Beauty, and perhaps a formal choice too. Sorrentino dispenses early on with any forward plot momentum, instead following Jep’s perambulations around the city, hinting occasionally at some personal or spiritual reckoning. But the film takes such predictable plot directions about as seriously as Jep takes the glinting slivers of absurdist beauty he comes across while exploring Rome’s avenues, piazzas, and fountains.
These explorations aren’t a bad gambit for viewers, for a couple of reasons. First, Servillo is an incomparably sly performer, who used a darker version of Jep’s watchful outsider persona to deadpan effect in Sorrentino’s 2008 political satire Il Divo, a more incisive, savage study of a nation in decline. Here, Jep insinuates a casual but somehow warm cynicism, his face initially inexpressive, then clownlike, making Sorrentino’s derision feel less aggressive, less jagged.
It helps too that Jep is making his way around Rome, on splendid display throughout The Great Beauty. From techno-throbbing rooftop parties to the elegant esplanade of the Via Veneto to the many tranquil gardens and splashing fountains revealed at the end of an evening’s drunken revel or lazy daytime stroll, the city is a character here as much as any person, more nuanced than most of the caricatures Jep encounters. This is probably Sorrentino’s point, since the closest he gets to presenting a rounded person here is Jep’s discouraged writer friend Romano (Carlo Verdone), who ultimately abandons Rome in order to lead a normal life back in his home village, or Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the middle-aged stripper who Jep with whom strikes up a friendship. Unfortunately, she disappears from the film when Sorrentino finds something shinier.
At a self-indulgent 142 minutes, the film is at least half an hour too long. But a tight and focused The Great Beauty would have made no sense at all. Sorrentino’s film lounges elegantly instead of purposefully marching. It takes a cigarette, sips a Campari, and gives you the time to appreciate the tailoring on Jep’s vividly yellow blazer. This leisurely tempo reflects Jep’s existence and critiques it too, suggesting that our own habitual search for significance may be part of the problem. What, after all, might be the purpose of the scene where Jep comes across a magician friend who is practicing a trick that would make a giraffe disappear? For no other reason than to visualize his belief that Roman life is a circus act. In the end, everybody disappears.