“The Great Beauty” resembles a contemporary “La Dolce Vita,” Fellini’s surreal 1960 tribute to Rome’s splendor, self-indulgence and superficiality.
Director Paolo Sorrentino creates vibrant, voyeuristic vignettes of high life and empty pleasures among the capital’s hedonistic ruling class half a century on. We see Fellini’s classic moments — a trip to the Trevi Fountain, a striptease, a flashlight tour of a darkened building — filtered through amped-up Berlusconi-era depravity.
The film gives us round after round of druggy dance parties where Rome’s aging elite flails gracelessly to brain-numbing synth beats. Much of the film takes place after dark, with characters and images repeating as if in a recurring dream. Drink, dance, snort, repeat. True to the film’s circular structure, the hot dance is “The Train,” a looping conga line going nowhere.
This is a film set in a Rome of the imagination. For one thing, there are no tourists. In an act of roguish revenge, Sorrentino opens his film by killing off a sweating Japanese sightseer. When the man turns his back on the stunning Fontana dell’Acqua Paola on Rome’s Janiculum Hill to snap pictures of the banal panorama below, he keels over with a stroke that feels like divine retribution. From that point on, Rome belongs entirely to Romans.
The leading role goes to Italy’s master chameleon Toni Servillo, who is equally credible playing conniving peons and shrewd statesmen. He plays Jep, an author of great promise now cranking out puff pieces for a swank magazine edited by a dwarf, another Fellini touch. The debonair Jep is a fixture on the nightlife circuit, adding intellectual cachet to the raves. We follow him through fly-by encounters with scores of characters. Some gain a back story and a dramatic trajectory, others are simply confetti-like color.
Through our guide, we meet a performance artist who butts her head against 2,000-year-old aqueducts, a cosmetic surgeon who injects Botox in an endless assembly line, and a cardinal who would rather discuss cuisine than theology. Whether he’s confronting tragedy or buffoonery, Jep’s response is a sardonic smile. Numbing excess has put him in a spiritual rut. While Jep never has a chance to ask his existential questions of religious authorities, he gets a hint at the meaning of it all from a circus magician. The man makes a giraffe disappear. That’s life. Now you see it, now you don’t, blink and you’ve missed it.
What does the film mean? As Jep puts it, “Things are too complicated to be understood by one individual.” The film is dauntingly episodic and overlong at 150 minutes. But whatever squabbles some may have with the oblique, leisurely narrative, all will most certainly be captivated by Luca Bigazzi’s camerawork, boasting some of the most gorgeous shot compositions on display this year.
Like Fellini and Caravaggio before him, Sorrentino insists that we see the beauty of both the angelic and the damned.