Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Toni Servillo
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Rome. A city that spans ancient and new. That timeless quality has only grown with films such as La Dolce Vita and Roma honouring the capital as much as criticising it – a tradition that is continued in ravishing style by Paolo Sorrentino’s intoxicating The Great Beauty.
“I didn’t just want to live the high life. I wanted to be the king of the high life. And I succeeded,” Jep Gambardella tells us. An ageing writer with only one book to his name, he looks back over his life of parties and women, still struggling to find inspiration for his next novel. Weary yet still in love with Rome’s eternal charm, Toni Servillo strolls through day and night like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, but perpetually shrugs it off with a cool confidence; a juxtaposition matched by the shifting city itself.
And what a city it is! From a random bout of knife-throwing to people holding divorce parties, cinematographer Luca Bigazzi swoons over the urban landscape with a shimmer of romance and a slice of surrealism. At the start, a Japanese tourist drops dead, his body physically unable to handle all the wonder on display. Later, Jep comes across a giraffe in the middle of the city. Next to it, a man who promises he can make it disappear. “Can you make me disappear too?” comes the weary response.
Jep’s journey consists of fragments of such disconnected events, vignettes of extravagance followed by the ethical questions of the morning after; on the soundtrack, John Tavener’s The Lamb, followed by We No Speak Americano by Yolanda Be Cool.
Booze, sex, botox. Rome’s beauty is, Sorrentino suggests, skin deep. One scene sees people from across society queuing up to receive jabs in the face, offered discounts if they’re friends. Last in the line is a young nun. She pays full price.
Just like Fellini’s Roma, the church is – inevitably – a big part of Paulo’s modern portrait. In one hilariously scathing dinner scene, we meet a candidate for the new Pope, a man more concerned with cooking than a higher calling. “Sister Maria only eats roots!” boasts a PR manager for the elderly Catholic to a table of wealthy socialites. “I have roots too,” chimes the culinary cardinal. “Chopped into tiny pieces with lemon…”
When we do glimpse a lofty balcony of authority, it is instead located above Jep’s luxurious central apartment, from which a tellingly Berlusconi-esque figure looks down on the writer’s rooftop gatherings. “I make this country work,” he protests, as they carry him away.
“what’s wrong with feeling nostalgic?” one performer asks halfway through Jep’s retrospective musings. “It’s the only distraction left for those with no faith in the future.”
In a sea of seemingly young faces, Sister Maria and Jep’s wrinkled visages are the only ones who appear to realise the truth of it all. Detached from the decaying morals, one peers over the city to find spiritual peace. The other sees through it to finally find that inspiration he was searching for: The Great Beauty. Sorrentino’s conclusion? It’s just a trick. But like Fellini before him, it’s a trick you can fall in love with, over and over again.
The Great Beauty is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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