To watch The Great Beauty is to be reminded of Fellini. This is not to diminish it: Paolo Sorrentino’s film is La Dolce Vita troubled by its own abject sense of mortality.
At the film’s heart is journalist, Jep Gambardella, played with insouciant glee by Sorrentino favourite Tony Servillo. A once promising novelist, Jep is now a cynical hack, caught in a holding pattern of lazy self-gratification. He drifts alone – it is no coincidence he fixates on the ocean – through the streets of Rome at night, charting the psycho-geography of a late-life crisis brought on by turning 65: ‘You’re no spring chicken,’ one character reminds him.
His is a half-life, an eternal round of Bacchanalian happenings and cynical close-encounters with bitter socialites, crack-pot performance artists, strippers, street-philosophers – the failed and the good. Try to imagine a Pedro Almodovar movie styled by Grace Coddington.
The Great Beauty has its detractors, There are those who decry its pithy observations on life as banal and vogueish. Equally there are many who detect in Sorrentino’s meandering tale of lovable narcissists, a finer truth about the human condition. The reality most probably lies somewhere between the two.
However, both sides agree the film looks and sounds fantastic. Together with his regular cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, Sorrentino preserves that happy Italian knack for capturing the architecture of cities – think Antonioni, Fellini, Bertolucci. Rome has rarely looked as ravishing.
The soundtrack, meanwhile, is an eclectic, shifting panoply of the religious and the secular. The likes of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki are layered together with the heightened textures of birdsong, the burble of fountains, the metaphysical cadences of the wind in the trees. In the film’s breathtaking opening sequence, a choir’s voices soar heavenwards before being slapped back down to earth by the shrill metaphors of Italian handbag house – the divine meets Divine.
But it’s the film’s love of the everyday theatre of the absurd – a tattooed exotic dancer in a glass booth, a girl hiding underground from her mother, a teenage artistic prodigy physically attacking her canvas – that sets The Great Beauty apart. Nor is Sorrentino afraid to explore a dark seam of poignancy – a Countess sneaking a listen to a museum exhibit commentary describing her mother’s death, the Japanese tourist who quite literally sees Rome and dies – to make his point about the chaos through which all our lives extend.
It’s the warmth of such haphazard connectivity that excuses the film its occasional glibness. During one of his night-time excursions, Jep encounters a giraffe. It belongs to a magician friend, part of the finale to the act he is forced to still perform. The pair are unexpectedly joined by another friend of Jep’s – a struggling dramatist – who announces he is leaving Rome for good. As he walks away, the magician calls out, ‘Look!’ indicating the now vanished giraffe. ‘He’s gone!’
Fellini would have approved.
A concert, inspired by music from The Great Beauty, is at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds on Thursday 13th April at 19.15. More information and tickets here.