Italian Oscar winner earns coveted award.
After decades in the upper tiers of the social elite, rubbing elbows with princesses, prospective popes, celebrities, and all manner of prominent socialites, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is prompted to take stock of his life. So begins The Great Beauty, a film that follows Jep, a fictional one-time author and member of Rome’s rich intelligentsia. We find Jep at sixty-five, still very much caught up in the luxurious nightlife that attracted him to Rome in the 1970s. A journalist by trade, Jep wrote a novel that was, according to many around him, one of the most important pieces of Italian literature of the preceding fifty years. But he wrote it when he was a young man, and failed to write another. A tragedy forces him to examine his life, which he has come to regard with a sort of lazy disdain. Turning his acerbic and highly critical wit on his own life, as well as the lives of his friends, Jep attempts to bring some sort of meaning back to his life, which, at the beginning of the film, has devolved into a years-long cycle of going to parties by night and sleeping by day.
Servillo is fantastic as Jep. He’s wryly humorous throughout, though he maintains a thin veneer of melancholy as well. Straddling the line between complete downer and self-deprecating comedian, Servillo maintains a quietly commanding presence in every scene.
The supporting actors are quite good for the most part, with highlights being conversations between Jep and his editor, a woman who completely owns her dwarfism, as well as the culinary-obsessed Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Helitzka). Despite these memorable performances, this really is Servillo’s, or Jep’s, show, a fact the actor and character are equally willing to demonstrate at more than a few points in the film (the most memorable instance being when he unsympathetically lists with sharply direct language all of a friend’s personal shortcomings in front of their friends at a party).
The film is beautifully shot. Director Paolo Sorentino truly picked some of the most distinct parts of Rome in which to shoot. Jep’s lifestyle is reflected in the lavish architecture of the city; he surrounds himself with beautiful things and people at all times, whether by attending the parties of his pretentious friends or strolling the streets of Rome early in the morning. Regardless of the setting, he has little patience for anything that doesn’t appeal to his aesthetic ideals.
The Great Beauty is a deeply affecting film. It’s vivid and bright, yet deeply melancholic. The dialogue is elegantly written and, though it’s performed with the same intentionally plodding, almost lazy, delivery, that permeates the entire film, it remains quick and witty. The film seems, in many ways, like a half-hearted love letter to Rome. The city’s great art and architecture are displayed in spades; everything is bathed a warm, golden light, and the colours are incredibly vivid. Despite the great beauty of the city, though, the characters, Jep especially, all seem unfulfilled. Jep’s friend Romano exemplifies this feeling near the end of the film, when he says that “Rome has disappointed [him] greatly.” Jep spends the duration of the film, and it is a lengthy duration, looking for a different great beauty than Rome, one that seems a little less hollow. Whether he finds it or not, his search makes for a great movie.