In decadent Rome, an aging art critic rides the success of his one, long-ago novel, and wonders if there’s more to life than having the best conga line in the Eternal City. He watches young nuns playing in a hedge maze, drifts into and through relationships with damaged women, and does a lot of eloquent smoking.
The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s update of/homage to La Dolce Vita, offers a lot of expected pleasures. Our antihero, Jep Gambarella (Toni Servillo), sometimes seems to be genuinely having fun, and at those points I tended to have fun right along with him. The camera swoons and swoops. The art and landscape of Rome look glorious–the many different, clashing landscapes, nuns scuttling past a satyr, neon lights and ancient stones. The satire of terrible performance art probably goes on too long (I would’ve cut the on-the-nose sequence with the man whose father photographed him every day of his life, and the knife thrower) but it ranges from acidic to surprisingly thought-provoking, disturbing, and nuanced.
Jep is a critic in the worst way: somebody who makes his living off of art. It’s a job which breeds cynicism. And Rome is famously a city of cynics.
But somewhere around the three-quarters point of the movie, something unexpected occurs. “The Saint” comes to Rome from Africa. This tiny old lady is a Mother Teresa caricature, surrounded by sycophants and bandwagoners, sitting propped up at the dinner table practically drooling, looking like humid death.
Then she opens her mouth, and begins to surprise Jep. From this point forward the movie’s satire has an edge of longing and compassion. It’s still quite scathing and funny: There’s a great moment when “The Saint” says something profound and one of her lackeys drops his head back with a shudder exactly like he’s just done a line of cocaine. But mystery and a sense that a deeper reality might be attainable begin to linger around the characters—even the most degenerate ones. Even the fatuous cardinal, who has been a pure cartoon up ’til now, turns out to have a strange, eerie hint of contact with another world, a hint of sublimity.
The movie ends with an act by “The Saint”—an unwatched act, free from any consumer/entertainer relationship with an audience—and a speech from Jep. The speech has an existential buoyancy: I was reminded of the last scene of The Lion in Winter, except that I always found that final TLIW exchange a bit tinny, a bit handwavey, spiritual vigor by force of will. I believed more in Jep’s delight.
There are various missed opportunities here, and at least one misstep. I think the scene in which Jep dances with a woman whom he badly mistreated earlier is just cheap—a bit of wish fulfillment from a not-especially-reflective male. Jep’s careful cruelty in the earlier scene was a terrific insight into his character, and to simply wave it away feels like a trivialization of his actions. In general I do think The Great Beauty would be a stronger movie if Jep were just a little more self-reflective, a little more troubled by guilt or sin rather than solely by purposelessness, anomie, and writer’s block.
But overall this was a surprising, vivid movie, sweeping and funny and thoughtful. Be sure you have somewhere to go to talk it over afterward, since you’ll definitely want to.