Fresh from its Academy Award nomination last Thursday for Best Foreign Film (and following its Golden Globe win in the same category), Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty" gets its Rochester premiere when the Dryden Theatre screens the alluringly enigmatic film this weekend. Simultaneously a love letter to and critique of modern Rome, the film functions like a thematic companion piece to Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," offering a dazzling glimpse into the opulent, but ultimately hollow lives of Italy's upper class.
As in Fellini's film, a journalist once again serves as our eyes into this decadent world. When we meet our protagonist, Jep Gambardella (frequent Sorrentino leading man, Toni Servillo), he's in the midst of a debauched celebration of his 65th birthday. A journalist and writer who in his younger days wrote one novel that achieved critical acclaim, he's now known mainly for his profiles of Italy's artistic and intellectual elite for a Vanity Fair-style publication. (His abandoned career as a novelist is in line with the film's theme of squandered potential.) Having spent most of his life embedded in this lifestyle, he's come to think of himself as "King of the High Life." But when the husband of a former lover seeks Jep out to inform him of her death, he's shaken by the news. The woman's name was Elisa, and according to her husband, her personal diaries refer to Jep as the love of her life. This revelation leads Jep to take stock of his life for perhaps the first time.
Reminded of a time when he had true beauty within his grasp, and realizing that he let it slip through his fingers, Jep finds himself searching for a way to recapture it. What follows is a slightly surreal and somewhat meandering journey as Jep leads us on a tour through Rome's nightlife. He goes out with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the middle-aged stripper daughter of an old friend, observes a 12-year-old "action artist" create her work, visits a botox clinic inside what appears to be an abandoned church, sees an illusionist make a giraffe disappear, and finally hosts a dinner party for a Mother Teresa-esque saint who is visiting the city.
What it all means is open to a variety of interpretations, with Rome itself acting as a character unto itself, with its beautiful relics of the past permeated with a certain emptiness within. Each sequence seems in its own way to be presenting the myriad ways in which people use art, from frivolous accessories of wealth, to a means to earn money, or a weapon to demonstrate one's intellectual superiority, or rarely, an honest expression of the soul.
The film is frequently as messy and indulgent as its subjects, with a running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours. I wasn't always sure that there was as much going on beneath the surface as Sorrentino wants us to believe (though perhaps that's part of his point), but it's above all an exquisite sensory experience. Sorrentino is clearly trafficking in satire, but there's tenderness present that lends the film a cumulative emotional impact. That emotion is largely thanks to Servillo's marvelous lead performance, as he lends Jep a debonair charm that gives way to a world-weariness that is quite moving. Sorrentino's ramped-up style recalls a more cerebral BazLuhrmann. He's a dazzling visual stylist; the film is always gorgeous to look at ("sumptuous" is the word that kept springing to mind), and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi's lush camera work injects artistry into every meticulous frame.