My God, it’s beautiful. It truly, truly is.
In The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino channels a Rome as classical and surreal as anything made by the Golden Age master Federico Fellini. Within the first 15 minutes, hints La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 flash before one’s memory, but this time in pulsing, rapturous colors. There’s even a new Guido, our hero: a high society Roman figurehead struggling to find meaning and purpose in the autumn of his life. His name is Jeb Gambardella, and we meet him on his 65th birthday.
The scene is a rooftop party, with a collage of dancers young and old: some gorgeous, some grotesque and all somehow sexy. The camera alights like a firefly, popping up where it pleases. We see a woman fly out of a cake. We see a dancer in a white, luminous enclave, twirling black fans over her naked body. There’s a mariachi band, a dwarf launched into the air. Beautiful, shadowy women make eye contact with the camera, if only for a hot second. In essence, we’re there; drawn to the scene — with all its riches and debauchery and sophistication — like moths. Then Jeb (Toni Servillo) arrives and assumes control, like Moses parting the sea.
But just moments after his posh debut, we’re listening to Jeb’s internal monologue, as though he’s in our heads, talking with us via telepathy. Not only do we know his thoughts, but we’re allowed to sink into his daydreams and memories. (My favorite is when the ceiling over his bed fills with waves, rippling Mediterranean and aquamarine.) With his slicked-back hair and meatball nose, Jeb tells us he was “destined to be a writer.” In his youth, he wrote an award-winning novel, but since then he’s only penned the occasional magazine profile. Still, he’s well off.
To give you an idea: he hosts little parties constantly in his flat overlooking the Colosseum, he’s hardly ever without a drink and he spends far more time sharply chit-chatting with his legion of acquaintances than doing any work. But for all his “friends,” it doesn’t ever appear he has confidants: people he loves, trusts. And when a man suddenly tells him his first love — whom he hadn’t seen in years– is dead, something changes. A longing for a life less frivolous takes hold, and we see Jeb focus his wit more harshly on the society that for decades has held him as a king. In one scene, he eviscerates a fellow novelist. Publicly, he knocks her down about two dozen pegs by simply giving word to the open secret that her marriage is a sham and that her books are just products of people she’d slept with. “You’re just like us,” he tells her, “with your life in tatters…you should show us affection.”
In most other movies, this humiliated woman would have already served her purpose. But Sorrentino allows his film the freedom to meander. His camera is curious about lives other than that of just Jeb’s, and it brings a compassion and humanism to the film. Even the nude shots, which feature many older women, have a certain generosity, one that manages to be both artful and erotic.
Like Fellini’s works mentioned above, The Great Beauty is at heart a dramatic comedy. The characters are over-the-top, bourgeois to the point of ridiculousness, but the scenes featuring them seem only half the film. The other half is a picture-poem of buttresses: movements of immense, heart-piercing prettiness. We see Rome’s plazas and statues, fountains and rivers all dappled and rippling in light. Meanwhile, gorgeous chamber music swells, sweeping us up in a rush of wings. We find ourselves exploring a cathedral of memory and dream. In our ultra-ironic age, it’s miraculous how quickly (and how often) Sorrentino gets us to swoon.
It’s all the more admirable because the movie leaves us with more than just a happy ending. It’s a bittersweet, dark-chocolate joie de vivre. Through Jeb’s struggles with death (and his attempt to rekindle that love he once felt: the love that drove him to write novels) he taps into an underlying sorrow that binds all humans together. What else could the Twin Cities ask for this week? See this movie and feast.
The Great Beauty is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.