Where there is life, there is death, but in The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), co-written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo), the two states often exist side-by-side—literally.
In the opening moments, a Japanese tourist croaks after taking snapshots of the lush, Roman surroundings. Then the movie cuts at night to the most jumping birthday party I've ever seen that wasn't thrown for P. Diddy. The shindig is for Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, dapper as all get-out), a 60-something Rome journalist and gadfly who, as we find out, parties to stave off despair.
Gambardella is a jaded scribe with one great book under his belt, a novel he wrote in his 20s that has been both hailed as a masterpiece and slammed for being pretentious twaddle. He now phones it in as a society writer, interviewing self-important artistes whose bullshit he can't help but call out in front of them.
For the most part, Gambardella retains his position as Rome's chief snazzy socialite, holding court with his fellow veteran intellectuals as he bounces from one insane soirée to the next. But, these days, he's been wandering around the city, experiencing what makes living both comic and tragic.
Amid the ebullience and extravagance Beauty offers, the subject of mortality is a major focus. Gambardella spends so much time surveying his surroundings and re-evaluating the existence he's created for himself, I'm shocked he never hums "Is That All There Is" during one of his nighttime strolls. He strikes up a relationship with a middle-aged stripper (Sabrina Ferilli, perfect with her stunning figure and sad eyes), who also appears to be looking for some purpose and meaning in her later years.
For the most part, our sharp-dressed protagonist tries to figure out this crazy, cruel joke called life—especially once people he knows start disappearing off the face of the earth. Hitting Gambardella the hardest is the passing of his first love, which evokes memories of the memorable night they had together.
At 142 minutes, Beauty is both a beast and a feast. Sorrentino paints Rome as a sumptuous, awe-inspiring place, filled with fascinating, unpredictable sons-of-bitches. Leading the charge is Servillo, giving his hilariously vain, comfortably smug and understandably pitiable protagonist a multitude of layers. Like the best Italian filmmakers (including—of course—Fellini, whose influence is all over this thing), Sorrentino recognizes the good and the bad, the gorgeousness and the ridiculousness his homeland offers. It seems Sorrentino wants to remind audiences that Italy is the country that's responsible for Sophia Loren and Silvio Berlusconi.
After a year that gave us a bevy of great films (All Is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, Her) that concerned lost, lonely souls desperately looking to find their way, Beauty is indeed the one you'll have the most fun watching. Funny and sad, poignant and profound, elegant and elegiac, ambitious and ambiguous, The Great Beauty is one of the most utterly enjoyable movies I've seen in years.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The sweet life."