Review of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty

It’s difficult for me to write about The Great Beauty without gushing, but I found it to be a film that cried out to be annotated, discussed and picked over, every line, scene, every note in the score, every action and reaction. While it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful film with barely a single frame I didn’t want to tear out and stick on my walls, behind it all is an atmosphere of worn-out indolence.

Sorrentino-regular Toni Servillo is here as Jep Gambardella, a writer that’s lived healthily and well off the proceeds and reputation of a culturally-significant novel published in his youth, his only tangible accomplishment to date; he’s repeatedly questioned as to why he never wrote anything else, and we learn that he was seduced and distracted by Rome itself, not just by the socialising and partying but by making himself a required aspect of both.

Jep is introduced at a rooftop rave — his 65th birthday party — and while it’s tempting to see the scene as absurd with balding, paunchy men dancing to club music alongside sweating, sagging women, it sets the tone for the whole film; the socialites of Rome have been partying with Jep non-stop since the ’60s, and the young are nowhere to be seen. Indeed, almost everyone in the film is in their late 50s and older, and the few that are younger tend to be damaged in some way; a mentally unbalanced son, a stripper still working in her 40s who cryptically tells Jep that she spends all her money on ‘curing herself’, a performance artist reduced to tears by Jep’s patronising and belligerent questioning and a young man with a limp and a cane who carries the keys to Rome’s greatest treasures, but possesses none of them himself. The young have abandoned the city for New York or London, leaving the dregs and the elderly behind.

The sense that the city has worn itself out pervades the film. While everyone we see is confident and outwardly-wealthy, there’s a feeling of regret that seeps through everything, particularly as Jep slowly realises how hollow it all is after one event after another chips away at his self-assuredness. There’s no major upheaval, no single point at which everything changes, just a slow, steady, chip-chip-chip. An interview he finds demeaning; the crumbling of his studied facade at a funeral; the shock that one of his friends would decide to leave Rome. Eventually he writes again; he runs out of things to hide behind.

The Great Beauty is a long, meandering film, but I wouldn’t trim a second from it, and I’d love to just sit here describing every scene that’s stuck in my mind; the nun gathering oranges; the botox ceremony; Jep’s brilliant, Hammer Horror reaction to a certain discovery late in the film. There’s wit and pathos in the script and performances alike, but perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is that, while it would have been easy to portray these tired figures as grotesques, they’re instead real, three dimensional people, all fighting their own private battles against time and irrelevancy. They may be pretentious, they may have achieved far less than they present, but I found myself feeling affection for all of them.