The clearest and most immediate entry point into Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty — a wandering, enigmatic, and near perfect film — is to see it as an update and a homage to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. If you are familiar with Fellini’s film and its Roman setting, then one of the joys of The Great Beauty is tallying up all the visual cues and riffs – Sorrentino’s many visual quotations, borrowed locations, and shot recreations taken from Fellini. Indeed the entire film unfolds in the fluid, floral style of the great Italian master, with tracking and craning cameras; dwarfing, de Chirico-esque sets; and a sweetly melancholic tone that would make the film, if nothing else, a brilliant and pitch perfect homage. But The Great Beauty is much more than rebooted Felliniesque. Like La Dolce Vita it picks up on that film’s particularly blend of intoxicating romance and existential despair, following a similar, though older, central character, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), through the world-as-menagerie, unfolding an exploration of the nature of self, life’s meaning, and beauty.
While our tour guide through this world is Jep, it is almost as if Sorrentino’s camera is the film’s main character — one long point-of-view shot. The camera wanders around the city like an insomniac socialite, distracted by scenes of improvised whimsy – Japanese tourists ogling at architecture, a female chorus singing from the rafters of a baroque arch, boats that float idly down the Tiber River – as well as a loosely knit cast of characters. Jep is also a wanderer. We meet him in the bacchanalian fury of his roof-top 65th birthday party, where he stands at the center of Rome’s social elite who line dance to raucous Latin music while a stripper undresses in a glass booth overlooking the scene. Jep came to this city his twenties, wrote an acclaimed novel, and then settled into the aimless “sweet” life. He cavorts with princesses, supermodels, and rock stars. He writes cultural features for a local magazine. And he throws parties and dinners to help sustain the unending “blah, blah” (his words) that, in his aging cynicism, seem to comprise all of what life’s made up.
We get to know some of Jep’s associates more than others. There’s his good friend, a struggling playwright; his maternal magazine editor, a little person with razor-sharp wit; and his lover Romana, played by Roman sex icon (and daughter of a prominent local politician) Sabrina Ferilli. There is also a rich panorama of side characters, many reminiscent of Fellini tropes: the pompous Catholic Cardinal, a half-mad teenager, an old friend and strip club owner, a Communist novelist, a magician who makes a giraffe disappear, an ancient old woman mystic called “The Saint” and her snakelike handler. As in a Fellini film, the many secondary characters function as a human set through which Jep wanders in and out; their exaggerations and eccentricities both add dramatic texture and send off thematic flares – snippets of meaning and commentary that flicker and fade in the Roman night as Jep observes, takes note, loses interest, and moves on.
What propels Jep through this world is an underlying sense of unease, a mid-life crisis that, as with La Dolce Vita’s Marcello, keeps Jep in a liminal space between emotional engagement and detachment. He wants to know what to do with himself; he continually abandons and takes up the idea of writing another novel. But none of it seems worth anything. There’s a complacency at play that is particularly Roman – the way the living ruins of the city, the great monuments proclaiming the most triumphant heights of human civilization, continually reemphasize the futility of human endeavor. For Jep, living in Rome is like camping out at the foot of the statue in Shelley’s Ozymandias: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck.”
In many ways this is a movie, first and foremost, for Rome and for Romans. There are lots of little local winks, headlines that poke fun at the unending injury troubles of the city’s soccer hero, Francesco Totti, and cameos from local legends, like singer Antonello Venditti. And there is sensibility that feels particularly Italian: a tension between sense of place and placeless-ness, the sedentary unmoored, a crisis of personal identity in country that lacks a strong sense of national identity to fall back on. When Jep’s neighbor, a mysterious man who always seems to be indulging some strange sexual fetish, turns out to be a crooked politician, there is neither surprise nor disgust, but rather a bemused curiosity that a man actually possesses political conviction.
But The Great Beauty resonates far beyond its particular locale and sensibility. Late in the film, Jep sits on his veranda overlooking the Coliseum with the odd and creepy “saint,” who silently stairs with cold, seemingly possessed eyes. That she is at Jep’s apartment is its own joke, a result of the slippery and tangled connections of the twisted Roman social scene that spins religious esteem into cocktail party prestige. And just as Marcello waited for an interview with the glorious Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, Jep is waiting on an interview with this equally enigmatic, though (obviously) very different sort of untouchable woman. The moment resolves in a line of dialogue typical of Sorrentino’s movie, which freely mixes humor and cryptic metaphor. “Do you know why I only eat roots?” the saint finally says. “Because they are important.”
The Great Beauty is a film about roots: the way we are rooted to ourselves and our place in the world, the way we are rooted through time to our memories, and the way our memories tangle the roots of identity in experiences ever-receding into a ghostly past. The lyrical film is a metaphor about hope and fear in the face of mortality, of what drives us toward things that seem most firmly rooted in authentic experience. For the saint, authenticity is religious experience, and the final scenes show the 104-year-old woman climbing the famous Scala Sancta shrine on her hands and knees. These scenes are inter-cut with Jep leaving Rome and going back to an island that weighs heavy in his memory, the place where a beautiful young girl removed her clothes and invited him behind the rock where he lost his virginity. Like everything in The Great Beauty, it is an enigmatic passage, both mysterious and melancholic, and it sits among the film’s great bevy of images and scenes that flow and ferment, fueled by the sweet buzz of life.