Forty years or so ago, Jep Gamardella became an Italian literary celebrity with the publication of his novel The Human Apparatus. There hasn't yet been a second novel as Paolo Sorrentino's film opens, but Jep (Toni Servillo) remains a celebrity in the Italian arts scene. He's more of a journalist now, an interviewer for what I take to be a Vanity Fair type magazine with perhaps more intellectual pretension. He seems to specialize in puncturing the pretensions of his subjects, both on the job and in private life. We see him take apart a performance artist (she throws herself headfirst into the walls of Roman ruins) simply by asking her to define the "vibrations" that inspire her. At a party, he's more cruel with an acquaintance who takes him to task for not writing another novel; she's a wealthy Communist (so I infer from the talk about "the party") who pretends to be socially relevant while living a privileged life with servants. He drives her from the room, practically in tears. Jep himself is privileged. Royalties from his novel and his income from journalism allow him to keep an apartment across the street from the Colosseum. He's 65 years old -- his friends raucously celebrate the birthday early in the picture -- but he can still bed beautiful women at will. He seems to live -- and Sorrentino practically dares you to say it -- la dolce vita, but inevitably a shadow falls across his path. A friend's wife has died; she was the great love of Jep's youth, but married the friend instead. Yet after her death the friend opened her diary and learned that she had carried a torch for Jep all her life. Why then, both men wonder, did she choose the other man instead of Jep? Her death and this discovery knock Jep out of his perpetual peripatetic present-mindedness, forcing him to reflect on the past and the possibility that he really has wasted his time. Finally, a 104 year old "living saint" whose presence has drawn a flock of flamingos to his balcony is the latest to ask why Jep hasn't written another novel. He answers that he's been seeking la grande bellezza. Then the nun chases away the flamingos with a puff from her withered cheeks.
I have to wonder how someone who's never seen a film by Federico Fellini responds to such moments in The Great Beauty. Fellini's films are such an inescapable reference point that you worry that anyone unversed in the history of Italian cinema is missing something. Sorrentino's film strikes me as more than a homage, however, and I think it would retain much of its evocative force even if a viewer has never heard of Fellini. While the Felliniesque trappings are part of its surface spectacle, there's a critical spirit to the exercise. The early party scenes are immediately evocative of La Dolce Vita, but the point seems less, "Look! I can do what Fellini did!" than to identify the familiarity of these moments as a problem. The birthday party is prefaced with a scene of Japanese tourists at some shrine, one of them dropping dead while taking a picture. This is followed by the party, or what cinema buffs might perceive as a typical Italian activity. It's either Sorrentino's implication or my inference that the partygoers are as much a relic or a heritage attraction as Rome's ruins. There's a more certain sense that Jep, at least, is a kind of tourist in his own country, while his cronies, with some honorable exceptions, are going through the motions of la dolce vita. Watching them form a train to dance in a circle, he comments: our train is the best train because it never goes anywhere. Moments like that make this seem much less like a homage and more like a subtextual critique of an Italian cinema that hasn't yet transcended the legacy or burden of a golden age that arguably ended around the time Jep's novelistic inspiration dried up. Believe that or not, but there's definitely some anxiety of influence going on here.
Sorrentino's direction is more restless than Fellini's: more dependant on montage, his camera more mobile within each shot. At times La Grande Bellezza reminded me less of the Italian maestro than of a more self-critical Terrence Malick, though there's always a danger of its style reminding you of commercials or music videos. But when that danger rises, there's usually some startling moment of alienation to save the day. During the birthday party you can see a go-go dancer gyrating to the music on the other side of a window. Suddenly Sorrentino cuts to the other side as the dancer moves to the muffled music in perfect isolation, revealed as a working person rather than a prop. At another party the parents want to show off their prodigy of a daughter, reputedly an abstract painter. The little girl would rather play with other kids but is dragged before an empty canvas. Buckets of paint are at her disposal; weeping with rage she hurls them at the canvas, covering herself with colors. Strangely, Sorrentino had flash-forwarded to this almost-ghastly vision before the scene properly begins. Stranger still, he cuts forward to some time later, to find the girl now deeply involved in finishing the canvas she's covered with paint. She seems to have an artistic temperament after all, but activating it is an intolerable chore. Jep is unconcerned when his girlfriend of the evening notes the crying; perhaps he recognizes a kindred spirit or fellow struggler in the little painter. Maybe he too needs a shove to fulfill his potential; maybe the pain of loss -- he experiences more than one in the film -- will do it.
There's a lot more to see in Sorrentino's film, and much to be appreciated on multiple levels at once as the director grapples with the Fellini legacy and strives to transcend it. I could mention all its attractions but I'd rather let some of the moments surprise you with their WTF absurdity or their eerie elegance. The cinematography of Luca Bigazzi and the score composed and compiled by Lele Marchitelli are very effective, while Tony Servillo's star performance completes my counter-Oscar quintet of best actors. I'll take Servillo, Redford, Hanks, Phoenix and Oscar Isaac over Bale, Dern, Ejiofor, McConaughey and DiCaprio any day. The Great Beauty itself is up for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. I haven't seen the other four nominees, but I feel pretty confident that Sorrentino ought to win in a landslide.