Many are hailing Italian director Paolo Sorrentino as the new Federico Fellini. While the comparison is warranted, once the theater lights darken, there is more to this talented filmmaker than meets the eye. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, we are witnesses to a masterpiece. ‘The Great Beauty’ is a modern day ‘La Dolce Vita’ that exquisitely paints a magnificent portrait of a man examining his life through the vapidity and decadence of Rome’s high society. What accentuates the film’s power is the gorgeous cinematography of Luca Bigazzi. The Eternal City plays an important role in the story and Sorrentino brilliantly makes it come alive in this surreal cinematic work.
The opening sequence shows the camera looking down the barrel of a canon. A shot is fired and Sorrentino launches us into orbit. Like a violent birth the camera takes us on an almost wordless prologue. Don’t think too much, just appreciate the magnificent beauty of Rome. At a fountain, a tour guide leads a group of Japanese tourists. As one traveler takes photos, he drops dead without warning. As nightfall comes, we’re taken to a decadent celebration on a rooftop. The DJ music is pulsating. As the camera voyeuristically moves around the party, it locks onto Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), smiling with a cigarette clenched between his teeth. It’s a birthday party for the dapper socialite. The glamorous soiree is being held on his vast terrace that overlooks the Colosseum.
“The best people in Rome are the tourists,” Jep casually tells his friends sitting around drinking cocktails. Those words may sound glib but they are profound for it is tourists that appreciate the beauty of Rome and don’t take it for granted. When Jep wakes up from a night of partying, there is sadness in his eyes. Some may view his melancholy as a mid-life crisis of sorts. However, it is more than that, it is an awakening. What really makes Jep emerge from his stupor is getting the bad news of an ex-lover’s death. This evokes memories of the dead woman in Jep’s youth. It’s a gorgeously shot flashback along the jagged watery Italian coastline that shows Jep as a young man emerging from the water and seeing the alluring beauty for the first time. Is this the one that Jep let get away? Her memory certainly reminds Jep of his lost youth.
It was 40 years ago when Jep wrote his only novel, “The Human Apparatus” that is still hailed as a masterpiece. The pressing question is why he hasn’t tried to write another novel. When he speaks, it is obvious he has the ability to pen another bestseller but instead he settles for working as a journalist and being the playboy of Rome’s nightlife. Don’t let Jep’s age fool you. He can still pick up hot women with a style and charm that twenty-somethings look on with envy. As Jep walks around the quiet city during the early morning hours after a night of partying, he takes in Rome with a newfound appreciation. This is a revelation for him. As he sits around with his high society friends on his terrace, he intellectually spars with a woman and deliberately exposes her and the phoniness they all inhabit. Some may consider it a cruel scene but it puts everything in perspective. The woman tries to one-up Jep by saying her literary works are far more important than Jep’s one youthful novel. Jep’s words cut through the woman like a knife without the least bit of pretension. He tells her, “You’re 53, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair.”
Jep sees himself with clarity. He knows he and his rich friends are provincial in their sequestered upper-class lifestyles. He is smart enough to know what is wrong in his life but he’s not ready to fix it. He is well aware that he has the good life. People come and go in his life. As he hangs out with a beautiful stripper named Ramona, he gives her a taste of his world by inviting her to private parties and showing her great art work. Will their romance blossom or is the great beauty in Jep’s life elusive? ‘The Great Beauty’ in Jep’s life has always been right in front of him – Rome itself. Sorrentino shows us that life is short so you better enjoy it while it lasts before it’s too late. It is a frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th annual Academy Awards. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/RH1Okwm36uI.