By Don Simpson | November 28, 2013
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writers: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Franco Graziosi, Giorgio Pasotti, Massimo Popolizio, Sonia Gessner, Anna Della Rosa, Luca Marinelli, Serena Grandi, Ivan Franek, Vernon Dobtcheff
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is celebrating his 65th birthday just like any of the aging social elite in Rome, with a party of hedonistic opulence where the seniors prove that they can party just as heartily as the raving hipsters. The crowd is of cultivated character that spans several generational divides, the beautiful youngsters mingle with the formerly-known-as-beautiful elders. As the bass of the music bumps and thumps its way through the pulsating pelvises across the endless dance floor, sounds from other musical eras and styles seamlessly slither their way in and out the mix. All the while, the extravagance of the visual style seems fitting for Gatsby, just as the pleasure-filled decadence seems almost appropriate for Caligula. This world is as post-modern as it is classical — the same might be said for modern day Rome.
The great society in which Jep is so embedded seems like it should only exist in literature and film. This is where the opening quote from Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night begins to make sense, because this “journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” The amount of money that was poured into this one party is utterly inconceivable to 99.9% of the world. Considering that Jep is a journalist who penned one acclaimed novel while he was in his 20s, it is difficult to imagine just how he came to live such an exotically wealthy lifestyle. It is as if entrance into the upper echelon of Rome’s celebrity social network has permanently imbibed him with boundless financial resources.
For writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, it is the ironic juxtapositions of Jep’s life that are most interesting. Jep seems to have everything — he is the de facto king of the Roman leisure class and can have practically any woman he wants — yet he is haunted by an ever-present emptiness. Money and influence have been able to buy Jep everything but everlasting happiness. No matter how rich his world is, Jep still feels the claustrophobia of the class boundaries that define his existence. The inherent cynicism of this tale is sugarcoated with an unwavering love of Rome. The indiscreet gaudiness of the bourgeoisie is contrasted against their backdrop, the classically refined opulence of ancient Rome. The serenity of the historical structures make the wild parties seem especially gauche, yet the partiers seems intrinsically bound to earlier Romans. They just want to drink enough to have fun, but not become unruly; sexuality is free and uninhibited, but their indiscretions are certainly not perverse enough to make Caligula blush.
The Great Beauty so eloquently considers whether this lifestyle is still fulfilling for Jep and for how much longer he can keep up with the line dance that leads to nowhere in particular. Sorrentino channels the ghosts of Federico Fellini and Luis Buñuel in viewing the Roman leisured class through a subtle lens of tragicomedy and satire, while simultaneously cultivating the intellectualized Existentialism of Michelangelo Antonioni. The epically sprawling narrative seems just as self-absorbed as the social elite that it follows; the seemingly random transitions from scene to scene and the exquisitely drifting camera movements give the allusion of a surrealist fantasy absorbed via a third person omnipotent perspective, and a near-Proustian mastery of the narrative form repeatedly renews our confidence that Sorrentino knows precisely what he is doing. The plot seems to meander at the pace of an elderly person with nothing to do but pontificate upon the past, yet Sorrentino craves our patience and fortitude, hoping that we have the necessary attention span to soak in all of the intricate details of this production.
Watching The Great Beauty prompts me to daydream about what types of films Fellini would have made in the 21st century. While this particular film owes a great debt to the work of Fellini (specifically La Dolce Vita), the sensory overload of the visuals seems to be much more akin to Baz Luhrmann — though The Great Beauty has a lot more emotional and philosophical substance than anything Luhrmann has directed thus far. Beneath the shock and awe campaign of the assault on the senses, Sorrentino meditates upon happiness, love, sex, art, aging and death; also contemplating the significance of theology, history, economics and politics in our lives.