The Great Beauty opens with a canon firing from the Janiculum hill in Rome, signalling midday, fittingly the time when most of the film’s social butterflies would either be retiring to bed, or considering waking up. The camera glides over historical monuments and busts with a seemingly effortless ease, landing first on a man looking sorrowfully down at an inscription carved in stone which reads “Roma o Morte” (Rome or Death). Another woman rests against the marble head of a political or literary figure, looking anywhere but towards the statue, with a cigarette hanging from her lips. Finally, we reach the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, a fountain built for a Pope in the early 1600s, where a large man in a dirtied white vest top washes his underarms, and a chorus of women sing a modern re-arrangement of an old Yiddish folk song, written by David Lang, a current New York composer. In front of the fountain, a Japanese tourist separates from his group to take photos of the overwhelming view of the city, and dies from the shock of it all.
This occurs within the first two minutes or so, and is a good example of the film’s visual and contextual richness, but also of its playfulness – its willingness to accept, and be engulfed in, the contradictions and hypocrisies of the city it spends its time in. Remembrances of great people and conflicts are lent on by sleepy locals, sacred music that sounds ancient is in fact written after the millennium (and is no less beautiful because of this), and tourism and death take center stage. The divine and the vulgar meet, and are two sides of the same coin in Paolo Sorrentino’s ode to experiences of love, life and age.
Toni Servillo plays lead role Jep Gambardella, a socialite in his 60s who drinks through the night and sleeps through the day, and who appears to be loved by all. He surrounds himself with equally rich and important people, and prefers to talk “about nonsense, about trivial matters“, because doing so means he does not have to face anything more profound or questioning. Statues make nice backdrops at parties, great literature makes good chat-up lines, and nuns are decorations, setting the scene of Rome beautifully. That is, until Jep is visited by the husband of an old lover, whose news causes everything to be called into question, regardless of whether there are any answers.
The quintessential flâneur, or stroller, Jep dampens his pain and appeases his newly inquiring mind by walking through the streets at night, meeting old friends, making new ones, and generally musing on his past. Such masculine soul-searching could have so easily seemed trite or narcissistic, but through some combination of Servillo’s great comic timing and handling of his character, and Luca Bigazzi’s sweeping visual feasts, The Great Beauty remains the right side of indulgent. Decadence is simultaneously embraced with open arms, and mocked from a distance, reflective of Jep’s growing feeling of disconnect with the extravagant world that he is a part of, and which he helped create.
The film’s reality is fluid, with set-pieces continually entering a dream-like state where nothing is certain. Death is glossed over, and becomes the closed eyes of a troubled boy, or the glamorous sleep of a stripper. Funerals are strict performances alive with contradictions, and religion is redundant but is an entirely necessary component in Jep’s final moment of understanding. This ambivalence is perhaps the true ‘Great Beauty’, as a man in search of inspiration and meaning, staring at the remembered face of a young lover, settles on the fact that all there is death, and life, and “blah blah blah“. And yet this ambiguity is itself a passionate conclusion, and inspires Jep to begin a new chapter of his life and his book. After all, we’re all tourists in this world, so we may as well soak in the sights and make the most of it.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★