The character of Jep Gambardella is turning 65, which would mean he was around 11 years old when Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita attempted to understand an Italy caught in the transformation from a fiercely traditionalist fascist nation to the epicenter of fashion, art, and excess. We will ignore the math, though, because in many ways we can see Gambardella as a version of what could have become of Mastroianni’s Marcello Rubini in that earlier film.
The parallels between La Dolce Vita and Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) are difficult to ignore, and they should be. La Grande Bellezza could be seen as reexamining many of the same themes through the lens of post-Millennial Italy. What is remarkable is that Sorrentino, with the significant aid of his lead actor Toni Servillo, manages to do justice to the visual artistry of that earlier masterpiece as well as the thoughtfulness.
The film opens with reverential and sweeping shots of the gorgeous Piazza Garibaldi in Rome while a chorus sings beautiful music. A group of Japanese tourists receives a tour in its native language — a nod to the international allure of the setting. One member of the group separates and attempts to photograph the city from his high vantage point before collapsing into a heap on the ground, presumably overwhelmed by the magic of Rome. This bizarrely pastoral death scene is rudely interrupted as the camera cuts to an absurd rooftop dance party.
The party is for the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella, a journalist (like Marcello Rubini) who has lived a life surrounded by Rome’s artistic and literary elite after writing a best-selling novel years ago — the only one he has ever written. His life consists almost exclusively of getting plastered at obscene dance parties and interviewing self-important artists for his editor (brilliantly played by the petite Giovanna Vignola). The interview early on with head-smashing artist Talia Concept is a particularly hilarious and engaging scene. Gambardella seems to revel in the crassness of the life he created for himself.
After learning of the death of a former love, the crushing superficiality of everything and everyone around him comes into sharp focus. As far as plot is concerned, that is as far as the film goes, but plot is hardly the draw here. The cinematography is so lush and masterful, especially when coupled with the naturally picturesque Rome, that one can see how easily a person could get lost when seeking an identity in the art culture of that city. To be sure, La Grande Bellezza is full of lost people — so lost that they no longer can see the great beauty that surrounds them every day.
Sorrentino’s characters constantly fill the voids in their lives with excess and debauchery, but these aren’t Fellini’s young and beautiful. These are people nearing life’s dusk, futilely drinking, dancing, or snorting away years of regret. Their advanced ages only increase their despair at ever seeking what it is that defines them. When Gambardella feels the need to bluntly describe a fellow writer’s life, the false smiles on all other party guests disappear, and it is clear they all recognize he could do the same with them. It is both delightful and painful to watch, with Gambardella’s scathing, captivating wit and the hurt look in his victim’s eyes.
That bit of cruelty is an early stage in the search for meaning in a life that Gambardella quickly begins to suspect he has thrown away. These themes of despair among Italy’s artistic bourgeois would quickly grow tiresome in the hands of lesser creators, but from Sorrentino and thanks to the masterful performance of Toni Servillo it is heartfelt and sincere.
There is an urge to follow Gambardella on his journey amongst characters as vivid as the aging stripper Ramona, or the Botox surgeon who insists on being called “my friend” or “my love” by his long line of patients, or the saintly 104-year-old nun who eats only roots. Indeed, the people are as eccentric and varied as the ancient city in which they live, and visiting them results in a film almost as thematically complex as it is aesthetically beautiful.
La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) opens in San Diego on January 17 at the Ken Cinema in Kensington.