The problem with taking life seriously is that you’ve then left the door wide open for sadness.
Perhaps that’s why The Great Beauty mostly registers as a sumptuous elegy. Toni Servillo stars as Jep Gambardella, a high-society journalist who reassess his routine of cozy assignments, casual romances and all-night parties in the wake of his 65th birthday – an occasion marked, as are many of the events in Jep’s life, with a bacchanal on a roof overlooking the great beauty of Rome.
Director and co-writer Paolo Sorrentino doesn’t start there, however. It’s notable that The Great Beauty opens with a death, one that’s less remarkable for who dies and how than for the way the movie reacts. Shortly after the body drops to the ground, Sorrentino’s lively camera cuts to a close-up of a woman screaming – not in grief, but delight. We’re suddenly at Jep’s birthday bash, a carnival of dancing and drinking and spirited denying that something like death even exists.
If you’re detecting a whiff of Federico Fellini, especially La Dolce Vita, just wait until you experience the movie. The scent of homage is overwhelming. The fountains of Rome could count as supporting characters; the close-ups of bit players are reminiscent of Fellini’s penchant, especially in his later films, to emphasize the grotesque. And in the sequences of Jep on assignment, often covering some sort of performance art, fantasy bleeds into reality in a way that turns Sorrentino’s Rome into Fellini’s Satyricon.
Jep’s birthday bash is a carnival of dancing and drinking and spirited denying that something like death even exists.
The Great Beauty has an eye for something other than revelry, however. The movie especially takes notice of Jep’s instinctive dismissal of the more troubling aspects of life. At one of his regular dinner parties, Jep ignores a friend who wants to tell him about her mentally ill son. He suggests a psychiatrist and quickly segues into talk of the salad. Later, while dressing for a funeral, Jep reveals his strategy for making the most impressive entrance at such events. Both are ways of turning attention from the seriousness at hand to blithe self-promotion.
Jep’s narcissistic flippancy begins to weaken, though, and not only because of his age. A revelation involving a former lover makes him think about what might have been. A genuine relationship with a stripper opens his eyes to the human cost of feeding desire. And a funeral – to his shock – brings him to tears. And so if Jep is a fuller person at the end of The Great Beauty, that’s also because he’s a sadder one (Fellini’s influence can be felt here too). He’s become attuned to all of life, not just its surface enticements.
Early in the film, Jep interviews a performance artist whose act climaxes with her running head first into a wall. Unlike Jep at this point, she goes to extremes to feel something. Jep’s eventual awakening to a life beyond his own simple urges is equally jarring. No longer flitting from one party to the next, he now must confront things such as hurt, regret, loss and, yes, even death. The great beauty isn’t just the pleasures of a place like Rome. It’s life in full, sadness and all.