When you think of the protagonists of the past year's best films, aren't you really thinking less about them than about what happened to them? Played to perfection by Toni Servillo, the central figure in the latest from writer-director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) is a famous magazine writer and bon vivant named Jep Gambardella. He doesn't get lost in space, contract HIV, face arrest for fraud or come under attack by pirates.
From the moment you join the conga line that is The Great Beauty, you're immersed in the extraordinary experience of observing the world through the eyes of a character engaged in nothing more extraordinary than the act of living. For two and a half hours, we're Gambardella's plus one as he goes about the business of his privileged, pleasure-seeking existence. A permanent fixture in a city that's eternal — Rome, of course — he's the intellectual and sensual life of every party he attends in an endless night of salons and bacchanals.
From Jep's entrance 10 minutes into the film, waving, smiling and, as always, smoking while gyrating partygoers pay homage at his 65th birthday bash, you're likely to find him among the year's most fascinating creations. Only thousands of miles from Hollywood could such a creature come into being. A playboy and professional reveler, Jep made his reputation with an acclaimed novel in his twenties and subsequently turned his energies toward becoming the emperor of Rome's leisure class.
"I didn't want to simply be a socialite," he reflects one evening, "I wanted to become the king of socialites. And I succeeded. I didn't just want to attend parties. I wanted the power to make them fail."
We accompany Jep to innumerable happenings, from a soirée kicked off by a knife-throwing act that's part art performance to an elegant Botox-injection ceremony. Because filmmaker Sorrentino is a direct stylistic descendant of Fellini, we're not at all surprised when spooky nuns, a blue-haired dwarf or a giraffe shows up on the guest list. In addition to the picture's sublime phantasmagoria, its rewards include watching Jep act as uncontested master of saturnalian ceremonies.
In one of the movie's most illuminating scenes, he politely eviscerates a member of his circle who suggests that, unlike Jep, she's tried to change the world with her writing. While his takedown is as withering as it is hysterical, an unexpectedly poignant epilogue follows. "Instead of acting superior," Jep suggests wearily, "you should look at us with affection. We're all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little. Don't you agree?"
Keeping him company is one of the most unforgettable pleasures you'll have at the multiplex for some time, I promise you. Things deepen with a melancholy detour in the final act. But the party never pauses, the music — an inspired mash-up of Italian techno, sacred classics and Robert Burns lyrics, seriously — plays on, and Rome's nocturnals drink, drug and dance like the world would come to an end if they stopped.
The visuals are ravishing, the mots are bon and, here and there, the audience may even detect the odd trace of wisdom (something I thought went out about the same time as animatronics — who knew?). Sorrentino's Oscar winner literally does not have a dull or meaningless moment. The picture's asides, its incidental vignettes, say more than most entire movies. It's La Dolce Vita for the 21st century, of course. But, more than that, it's the rare work that not only tips its hat to a masterpiece but sort of shockingly tops it.