As the year draws to a close, new awards and Top 10 lists are springing up right and left, many of them singing the praises of the technically brilliant but emotionally flat “Gravity.” While it’s no doubt a must-see experience for any cinephile, the same could be said of an equally immersive but far richer film, “The Great Beauty.” For nearly two and a half hours, this Fellini-esque epic transports us right to the heart of Rome’s vibrant nightlife and high society as we follow an aging journalist who begins to see the world around him from a new perspective.
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino (whose English language debut, “This Must Be the Place,” was released last year), “The Great Beauty” premiered at the Cannes film festival in May before making its North American debut in Toronto this fall. The film picked up a slew of top honors at the European Film Awards this month, was nominated for best foreign-language film by the National Board of Review, and most notably, has joined the Academy Awards race as Italy’s foreign-language film submission.
Although “The Past” and “Wadjda” may be the stronger Oscar contenders (as “The Great Beauty” could be too “out there” for many Academy members’ tastes), this love letter to Rome and its harlequin residents should play well among art house crowds in the weeks and months to come.
Actor Toni Servillo (whose starred in breakout foreign films “Il Divo” and “Gomorrah”) delivers an affecting, poised performance as journalist Jep Gambardella, who surveys the eccentric masses as he celebrates his 65th birthday and is frequently reminded of his one successful novel published nearly 40 years prior. Trying to find meaning in religious ceremonies, ravishing women and the shallow extravagance that surrounds him, Jep is ultimately on a quest to discover “the great beauty” in life, and to some degree, he finds it.
Featuring sharp, thoughtful dialogue co-written by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello, “The Great Beauty” feels most alive in moments of silence, but also in its exquisitely shot party sequences with a hypnotic soundtrack of Italian nightclub anthems (seriously, just try and not get Bob Sinclar’s “Far L’Amore” stuck in your head). Characters speak of how they’re all on “the brink of despair” and aren’t “cut out for beautiful things,” giving this otherwise wild ride a poignant, melancholy center (akin to recent foreign-language films such as Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” and Matteo Garrone’s “Reality”).
With eye-popping splendor and sensory thrills, it’s best just to take it all in and let “The Great Beauty” wash over you. As soon as the music dies down and the lights fade to black, there’s meaning to be found in this modern Italian masterpiece.