Much like Jep Gambardella, the protagonist of the sumptuous Italian Oscar winner “The Great Beauty,” we’ve seen a lot of parties in the movies, and it’s getting harder to impress. The one Paolo Sorrentino throws at the start of “The Great Beauty” though is certainly electric. It comes immediately after a spiritual reverie of an opening with the camera gliding over Roman fountains as choir girls echo in the background, so the blaring EDM and affronting sexuality that come next definitely come as a shock.
But it is at this moment Sorrentino quite literally turns the movie on its head to show just how absolutely delirious, rich and brilliant this film is. The camera rotates upside down and the celebration rages on, the wealthy and privileged of the high society now as high as they can go with no sign of coming down.
“The Great Beauty” is a colorful, vibrant, intellectual and aloof treat, a Fellini for the 21st Century and art classic for the ages. And yet it is also a devastating, powerful piece of cinema, bold and brash in its style and incisive to the lifestyle it depicts. It could fit along with 2013’s “Gatsby”, “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Bling Ring” as a have-more movie, but Sorrentino goes farther by challenging the notion of having it all without ever having to bring us down.
Jep (Toni Servillo) is a journalist and culture critic in Rome and the King of the Italian high society. The massive orgy of a party is actually his 65th birthday party. But during a particularly riotous dance line, he steps out and the motion slows to a halt. Jep steps outside the movie moment and soliloquizes the lost mystique of this world he helped build.
At one performance artist’s show, he sees right through the provocative act and the artist’s pretentious, snobby philosophies in her interview. The woman has stood completely naked on an outdoor stage with a Soviet Union flag painted on her vagina. She sprints at an aqueduct wall and bashes her head before limping back on stage and screaming a passionate war cry. Later she talks of feeling the “vibrations” of the world in her art, and only Jep can tell she has no bloody clue what a “vibration” is.
This is Jep’s life, lavishing in his palace with a new beautiful starlet each evening while showing a casual disdain, insouciance and misanthropy for Rome and all the privileged people in it. He effortlessly and calmly brushes off his house guests’ “intellectual acrobatics” with a raise of an eyebrow and a turn of phrase. His sarcastic and verbose sparring could easily be off putting, but Toni Servillo’s performance is so disarmingly charming as to never care.
If this was Sofia Coppola, the stunning set pieces might be deadpan and drab. If it was Baz Luhrmann, they’d be staged merely for their showiness. Sorrentino is the visual stylist behind 2011’s frustrating but lush “This Must Be the Place,” another film about a wealthy artist desensitized to high society’s pleasures. What he brings to the film is a flair for the surreal and a spiritual grace with many echoes of Fellini and a few of Malick. In one scene a giraffe appears and vanishes in a comical flourish, while in another we’re hit with deep melancholy when a young girl is forced to perform action painting for a quietly admiring crowd. The colors and spectacle on display are unmatched, and yet we approach them with a complex detachment.
One of the film’s best scenes is arguably its least stylized. It’s an engaging conversation between a highly political woman criticizing Jep for the trifling insignificance of his one and only novel. She intelligently perches on a pedestal of journalistic integrity and motherly affection in disregard to Jep’s blasé attitude; it’s only a matter of time before Jep destroys her. He calls out her own novel and her need to live through her children, and his honest, yet accurate and necessary monologue is devastating.
But Jep says something to her that reflects the whole dynamic of “The Great Beauty”: “We’re all on the brink of despair; all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company and joke a little, so why lecture us and hold us in contempt?
“The Great Beauty” doesn’t judge or condemn this lifestyle the way an American director certainly might, but it hits at the pitiful nature of the human condition and the small things we can do to find the real beauty in the world.