Italian director Paulo Sorrentino had revealed some interesting touches in his early work The Consequences Of Love and shown himself to have promise as an innovative stylist in his expressionist biopic of slippery politician Giulio Andreotti, Il Divo, but I didn’t see this coming.
As Italy tries to enter a post-Berlusconi era there is a political and social dimension to The Great Beauty too, but this film has a far wider scope and importance than a mere commentary on the head-over-heels decadence of the recent Roman past.
It’s much too simplistic to say that Sorrentino has taken Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and revised and updated it for the twenty-first century. He has, although the self-effacing younger director wouldn’t claim so perhaps, reached a vantage point where the great Fellini would have feared to clamber.
The death of a former, all but forgotten, lover produces an epiphany for Jep Gambardella, played by Sorrentino’s close collaborator Toni Servillo, but there’s more to The Great Beauty than a plot-driven narrative.
The film is also a lot more than a series of tableaux, of memorable and sometimes symbolic sequences. Starting with the bouncing blue, white and black rooftop party that eventually becomes a slowed down moment of self-realisation for Jep as he celebrates his sixty-fifth birthday. Never has Europop looked, moved and sounded so appealing.
For Jep life begins at sixty-five, or rather some new form of self-awareness begins, that may have an impact on his creative career, as Jep is an arts journalist who lives off the reflected lustre of his one great youthful novel of many years ago.
Even outwardly rich and successful people, (how many people do you know who could afford to live in a penthouse apartment overlooking the Coliseum?) feel like failures, as they lie awake searching for sleep.
This is the obvious, but often obviously overlooked, revelation at the centre of this film. It’s the human condition itself that forces us to lie to ourselves just to keep on living. We live with the memories and self-created images of our lives and term this our past, our present and our future, just as Rome lives with its glorious and magnificent history and its febrile, yet evanescent, present.
And Rome is the voluptuous whore that sells herself to everyone as long as they have money, but it’s also a unique and historic place of spiritual awakening and enlightenment. Rome is The Great Beauty.
Out of this obvious truth Sorrentino has wrought, not just the best foreign language movie of the year, but arguably one the best movies of any year and a singular, bright and freshly crafted work of art that will stay with you for a long, long time to come.
This beauty comes with a rich, vibrant visual language and camerawork that’s free-flowing and confident enough to turn images head-over-heels and walk through flowing water, with a soundtrack and a closing title sequence that will haunt your memory and set your dreams on fire.