The Great Beauty: a triumph of decadence and depth

There are many words to describe Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s much-hyped new film, but conventional is not one of them. The Great Beauty (or ‘La Grande Bellezza’) is astonishing and bewildering – a decadent, indulgent triumph of European art-house cinema.

Toni Servillo plays our protagonist, as he did in Sorrentino’s previous works Il Divo and The Consequences of Love, but Rome is the real star here. This is a homage to the throbbing, historic Italian capital itself in the manner of Fellini, but it is also a fierce satire of the sheer vanity of the place. Parts of the script could have been snapped from Woody Allen.

Servillo plays Jep, an affluent journalist and socialite in his sixties who wrote an acclaimed novel in his youth but was too distracted by chic parties to write another. His friends are the crème de la crème of Italian society - artists, novelists, playwrights – but they’re all somewhat removed from the real world: when he asks one woman he later beds what her job is, her response is simply ‘I’m rich’. He also flirts - Berlusconi style - with models and strippers half his age, but Servillo remains effortlessly suave rather than creepy.

The film thrives on the clashes between beauty and decay; sophistication and vulgarity; poverty and wealth. It’s all electro-pop, beautiful people and vigorous dancing. We see him grinning amongst it all, cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Then, in striking slow motion, lines of party-goers dance either side of him as he sparks another one up and stands motionless. Rome seems to revolve around him, leaving him thrilled one moment, jaded and cynical the next.

The narrative is free-spirited to say the least. A stranger shows up on Jep’s doorstep bearing tragic news which leads him to revise his life and the consequences of his choices. This is the closest we get to any semblance of plot over the epic 142 minutes. What we get instead is a series of stunning and often surreal vignettes that touch on all aspects of what it means to be human - to love, to lose, to desire, and to regret.

They are strange, sad and often amusing: we see Jep reminisce about his first love; cry at a funeral; take a 42-year-old stripper around the hidden corners of Rome in the dead of night using a secret key; and try to seek spiritual advice from a cardinal who is more interested in duck recipes than religion. For some, this method might seem overly ambitious, but Sorrentino pulls it off.

This is a tragi-comedy and a drama, but above all it’s an art film. The cinematography is so close to perfection it’s hard to look away, and it celebrates art in all forms. In one dazzling scene, Jep absorbs a vast wall montage of photographs an acquaintance has taken of himself every day since childhood. This is opulent, self-conscious filmmaking, reminiscent of Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love.

Such ostentatious sensory feasts could have proved unbearably pretentious and come at the cost of decent dialogue or character development. Not here. Jep, rather like the film itself, is shallow on the surface but has hidden heart and depth, and Sorrentino excels in exploring it.

This is a bold, stunning and mesmerising film. Sit back, relax and let The Great Beauty work its magic.

Sarah Holland is a film writer based in Brighton. She blogs at Girl On Film.

Watch the trailer for The Great Beauty

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