Jep Gambardella is having a very bad month. He’s just turned 65. He’s written one book in forty years and he’s been single just as long. He’s starting to get bored of the Roman nightlife that he’s made a living chronicling for a prestigious magazine. And near the beginning of the film after the worst news of all, he hears the question he will be asked for the rest of the movie: Why did you never write another book?
How Jep is going to answer this question is the plot of “The Great Beauty,” the new film from Paolo Sorrentino (“This Must Be The Place,” a film featuring the most obvious miscasting ever in Sean Penn as a Robert Smith-inspired rockstar) and Italy’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
It’s the clear favorite, and for good reason: Sorrentino’s film, his seventh, is masterful, visually splendid but thematically deep, an homage to his idol Federico Fellini and a unique work in its own right.
While the references to “La Dolce Vita” are blindingly obvious —both are about artists facing a critical point in their careers, both are set in upper-class Rome, both have dwarves as prominent authority figures, among other things—Sorrentino makes it very clear that he has no intention of blindly following in his idol’s footsteps.
Where Fellini explored the impact of Mussolini on his homeland, Sorrentino finds his target in former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a man considerably less fascistic but equally destructive. Indeed, Rome in “The Great Beauty” is a city either trying to restore the light or go back to sleep and recover from ten years of some of the most corrupt politics of this young century.
Toni Servillo, who plays Jep, is a revelation, embodying weariness and dry wit in equal measure as he tries to make sense of his life, be it through dealing with the issues of his past or his infatuation with a friend’s terminally ill forty-something daughter (Serena Ferilli, who radiates beauty and sadness every second she’s on screen) and tries to bring something new into a world where it seems everything is ending.
This isn’t to say the film is depressing. It’s actually quite funny, with a subplot about a terrible play Jep’s best friend is staging, a magician attempting to make a giraffe vanish and a performance art piece that literally tries to be, for lack of a better word, mindblowing.
At the same time, the film is beautiful. Sorrentino clearly loves his homeland, shooting with an eye that is unwavering and yet can find the beauty in everything, be it in a wild party or a couple lying asleep together.
Despite everything “The Great Beauty” does incredibly well, it has obvious weaknesses. The story is nearly nonexistent and at least twenty minutes could be cut to improve it, but Sorrentino has made something very special with this film, one where even the closing credits are more gorgeous than some directors’ whole filmographies. Keep an eye out for this one. Do what Jep resolves to: See the beauty. It’s all around you.