There’s a breathtaking and deeply frustrating Italian film called The Great Beauty I have to tell you about, because it’s really something to see even though it will probably drive you a little crazy.
The Great Beauty is a conscious and knowing update, 53 years later, of Federico Fellini’s seminal La Dolce Vita—a portrait of Rome and the journalist who lives at the red hot center of it. The key difference between the two films is that Marcello of La Dolce Vita is glamorously young while Jep, the protagonist of The Great Beauty, throws himself a 65th birthday party in the film’s bravura opening sequence.
Like La Dolce Vita, The Great Beauty has no plot to speak of; it’s a series of scenes in which the protagonist interacts with Romans of every station—high-born, low-rent, clerical, anti-clerical, Marxist, anti-Marxist. Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino has updated Fellini’s gaudy and arresting way with the camera to the latest in 21st-century techniques and retains the master’s fascination with human variety (a key role is played by a dwarf).
The one thing the people of La Dolce Vita and The Great Beauty have in common is that they are all spiritually empty, but in a peculiarly entrancing way. And no one is more entrancingly soul-sick than Jep Gambardella. Forty years before the film begins, he wrote a celebrated and highly successful novel that bought him what may be the world’s greatest apartment, with a gigantic terrace overlooking the Colosseum.
He never wrote another novel; instead, he decided he wanted to become the king of Rome, with the power (as he says) not to make a party but “to end one.” Never married, and a legendary ladies’ man, Jep goes to sleep when the sun rises and wakes at three in the afternoon. He has the langorous weariness and charm of someone who has seen everything and judges nothing. In the movie’s most potent scene, Jep offhandedly brutalizes a self-righteous parlor Marxist who has attacked him for his flippancy and unseriousness by exposing every one of her illusions and self-justifications as though he were talking about the weather.
The scene is a tour de force for the actor who plays Jep, a 54-year-old theater director named Toni Servillo. I’ve been liberally tossing garlands lately to leading men—Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, Robert Redford in All Is Lost, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave—but I have to say that Servillo puts them all in the shade with what may be not only the performance of the year but of this century. He builds his character with an almost supernatural attention to detail, from his languid gait to his corrupted smile, until we are able to separate the disappointed man from the glamorous shell in which he has carefully sepulchered himself. I’ve never seen an intellectual depicted as well on screen.
So what is the problem with The Great Beauty? For one thing, it’s intermittently very boring. Sorrentino is so in love with his swooping camera and innovative shots of Rome that he loses all sense of pace. Some scenes go on two or three minutes too long while others end far too quickly. He doesn’t bother with conventional narrative techniques, so it takes several minutes to figure out that a key character has died. This is information we shouldn’t have to guess.
Mostly, though, Sorrentino doesn’t really have anything all that interesting to say about Rome. When Fellini offered up his portrait of fashionable soullessness, it was something new; but it comes as no surprise to us that a 65-year-old party animal may discover he has wasted his life.
Sorrentino’s ever-moving camera takes us inside palaces and ancient Roman temples and hidden glories, but there doesn’t seem to be any point to it. Perhaps he intends to contrast the city’s eternal glories with the transient foolishness of Jep and his friends, but it doesn’t come across that way; it just plays like a travelogue. Moreover, the whole city seems strangely unpopulated. You never get the sense of Rome’s crazed hustle, which you certainly did in La Dolce Vita.
Nonetheless, The Great Beauty is a knockout—an annoying knockout. Maybe if you’re prepared you’ll be less annoyed than I was—and more knocked out. And even if not, you’ll get to see Toni Servillo, who is more dazzling than any special effect.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.