Can there be such a thing as boisterous lethargy? Tragicomic torpor? Energetic ennui? Sì, sì and sì: in Paolo Sorrentino’s extravagant, confident, magnificent epic, “The Great Beauty” (La grande bellezza), Rome is front and center in all its decaying beauty and insurgent energy, its “disenchantment and cynicism,” with Sorrentino’s protagonist, the journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, “Gomorrah,” “Il divo”), lending his sad eyes to reflect all of society in front of him. Of course, Roman society includes a Fellini-flavored range of flash and buffoonery, and as the sixty-fifth birthday of the famed novelist approaches, frenzy grows after the fashion of “8 1/2” and “La dolce vita.” Decades earlier, Jep wrote a single book, “The Human Apparatus,” that made his name, and from his unlikely apartment overlooking the Coliseum in the center of the city, the world passes before his pained smile. As Sorrentino has said, “Rome, it’s a wonderful city, soothing yet at the same time full of hidden dangers. By dangers I mean intellectual adventures which lead nowhere.” Servillo amazes in each expression: hangdog, yet vital, his post-Mastroianni Jep Gambardella is paralyzed by possibility. (But not every character: in one of the earliest scenes, a Japanese tourist dies while photographing the beauty of the skyline of the city.) One of the true great beauties is this man’s face. But, too, Rome sizzles. Finery drapes. Marble gleams. Is the photography by Luca Bigazzi (“Il divo,” “Certified Copy”) journalistic or decadent? (Both, of course.) Among other elements of the dense weave of event and artifact, the setting of the half-sunk Costa Concordia is an inspired exploitation. “The Great Beauty” is a great romance: a man and a city and a love that cannot be consummated but which will consume you surely. Somewhere, Baz Luhrmann weeps. “The Great Beauty” is Italy’s 2013 best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry. With Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli. 142m. (Ray Pride)
“The Great Beauty” opens Friday, January 4, 2014 at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.