“The Great Beauty” opens with a lavish, sexually charged dance party celebrating the 65th birthday of a journalist, whom we see rambling through Roman high society, encountering performance artists, strippers, a saint, a cardinal, flamingos and a magician’s giraffe.
So it’s no wonder Paolo Sorrentino’s film has drawn comparisons with Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” another swirling, entrancing tale of a writer in Rome. But “The Great Beauty” is contemporary. It is, if nothing else, a look at the decadence and self indulgence of the upper classes and artistic world but could also be a critique of Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy.
That said, the film is itself a great beauty, masterfully shot to evoke character along with locale.
At the center of most of those shots is Toni Servillo, the star of Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” and a true master.
Here he’s Jep Gambardella, a writer and interviewer for a magazine who set out to become the “king of the high life” and succeeded. Known by everyone who counts for anything, Jep is self-assured, confident, witty and happy to reveal the frailties and flaws of those who challenge him, be it a performance artist who sprints into a brick wall or a woman whose harangues against him prompt a dressing down in a posh salon.
As the film, which runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, rolls along, more and more about Jep is revealed -- most importantly, that he wrote a well-received novel years before and that he was dumped by his first girlfriend.
When he gets notice of what’s happened to her, Jep starts to re-examine his life, while encountering, first, well-born stripper Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), then a living 104-year-old saint (Giusi Merli) who’s clearly modeled on Mother Teresa.
But don’t expect Jep to crumble into regret and then rise to a final triumph as would be the expected curve in a Hollywood drama. He’s far too sophisticated, strong and smart, and the film is far too European for that.
Instead, we see a man looking at a life he sees as increasingly empty, a critique not only of his past but of the society in which he lives. We suss out to some measure his intent to change.
With Servillo at the center of things, “The Great Beauty” is superbly acted, with other players making brief appearances, be it a would-be playwright in love with a stuck-up actress or Jep’s wise old editor.
“The Great Beauty” lives up to its title visually as cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s camera tells the story in gorgeous, strikingly composed, fast-moving images. Its use of music, from throbbing dance tunes to opera, is just as striking and essential.
“The Great Beauty” made some best foreign film of the year lists last year -- for good reason. It’s thoroughly captivating, entertaining and insightful.