For those of us who still believe that commercial art forms like the movies have the potential to be transformative—“The Great Beauty,” an Italian film by Paulo Sorrentino, is a gift. A contemporary film with classical ideals—concerned with art, beauty, love, and, mostly, death—“The Great Beauty” is a Fellini film for a new century—at once offering a satisfying and nostalgic blend of female objectification, Dionysian excess, and the floating realism of old vs. new in Rome, as well as nuns and nostalgia, performance and loss. More than anything, it is a tribute to the creative impulse. Like a Woody Allen film, there is a sense that the inhabitants of this film are economically comfortable enough to concern themselves not with rent and health care, but with existential angst, spiritual longing, and a quest for meaning in a fucked-up world. For those of us who spend most of our time still dealing with rent and health care, it is a two-hour journey into ideas and emotions we only wish there were time to consider. That’s a reason to go to the movies.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a journalist who once wrote an acclaimed novel, but has spent the last 40 years as a bon vivant. It is with the arrival of his 65th birthday that not only death, but also the possibility for renewal, is sparked in the midst of the same old dawn-chasing lifestyle. Nuns, bizarre performances to be reviewed by the protagonist, brief affairs with rich women, and a series of parties frequented by many of the same characters, reveal a debt to Fellini that is almost predictable. It is Sorrentino’s gift with dialogue, however, which renders a merely fantastical soap opera into art. In one scene, a high-powered TV hostess and author attempts to justify her existence, her importance, her dignity at a circle of slightly drunk, post dinner-party guests of Gambardella. At this point, the host sets her straight, in a monologue which is not only devastatingly honest, but moving, heart-felt, brutal and true. “We’re all miserable,” is basically what he tells his friend and rival. “So let’s just love each other and support each other, and let down our egos.” This is a man who is, at 65, partially bereft, and partially searching. It is the search, which defines the movie.
Another scenario occurs near the end of the film, when an ancient nun, a Mother Teresa figure, comes to Rome for some kind of Vatican-related tribute, but ends up at yet another dinner party at Gambardella’s house, arranged by his agent in order to secure a once-in-a-lifetime interview with a person who does no interviews.
While the nun is the opposite of the night-dwelling journalist and his coterie, she has a certain fascination for these people because of her reputation for miraculous piety, a decrepit physicality and total lack of pretense. When she falls asleep on Gambardella’s bedroom floor, at home on the earth, he sits by her in his underwear smoking a cigarette, watching the wizened figure, barely still alive. Magic happens the next morning, when he finds her on his balcony surrounded by a flock of migrating flamingos, like St. Francis surrounded by doves.
Another scene features an aging stripper Gambaradella has become fascinated by, who accompanies him to a party. An acquaintance of the journalist, who seems to know everyone in Rome, holds the keys to ancient galleries on the grounds of the party and lets the two of them into rooms filled with statuary and relics, where they wander, the jaded journalist and his big-hearted whore, silently taking in the treasures of ancient civilization, while the rest or the party dances drunkenly to the latest trance music amongst the cypresses and fountains outside.
How grateful can a film-goer be to a work of art which poses questions and presents images that are so absent from American films, with theirviolence-drenched, special-effects-ruined stories based on comic book heroes; and the indie films with their tiny dramas and irony-soaked texts? This is a film that evokes a deep-rooted sense of wonder. It is the kind of film in which a room of viewers can, together, be moved, entertained and unable to leave the theater until the afterglow disappears. It is, “The Great Beauty.