Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” (“La Grande Bellezza”) soars into that rarified atmosphere where art, entertainment, travelogue and circus all collide in a great, beautiful mash-up of ideas and imagery.
It is one of the truly marvelous films to come out of Italy in recent years, one of the last ones, in fact, being another Sorrentino film, “Il Divo,” in 2008.
The film is unimaginable without the influences of Fellini’s two masterpieces, “La Dolce Vita” and “Roma.” For that matter, the legacies of such Italian masters as Scola, Ferreri and Monicelli flow through the movie like convivial spirits.
With these winds at his sails, Sorrentino takes you on a voyage through a magical Rome, the Eternal City where decadent pleasures play out against and within ancient buildings and where the sense of eternity is as much a curse as a blessing.
The film acts as a contemporary update of “La Dolce Vita.” A man-about-town journalist, older than the Mastroianni character but very much the observer of his and everyone else’s follies, drifts through the city’s nighttime carnivals and early morning promenades down nearly deserted streets or along old man river Tiber.
Jep Gambardella (longtime Sorrentino collaborator Toni Servillo) is a leading light in Rome’s literary and social circles, a position he fixed on in his youth when he first arrived and then solidified by the publication of his one and only novel years before.
Everyone asks why he never wrote another. Depending on his mood he gives an answer that suits the moment. Usually he admits to a certain laziness or cites the distractions of the Roman night life.
Sorrentino and his co-writer Umberto Contarello place the impeccably tailored writer at nightly parties, clubs, cafes and soirées among the city’s intelligentsia, trading gossip and insults or dancing wildly, often in long conga lines of celebrants decked out in warpaint and costumes as if for a Mad Hatter’s Ball.
Watching one such line of dancers, Jep remarks that Rome has the best “trains” because they go nowhere. That comment actually sums up his own madcap life.
He conducts earnest cocktails parties on his amazing writer’s terrace overlooking the Colosseum, just beneath the balcony of a mysterious stranger who lives upstairs. Everyone seems to end up on that balcony and that includes on one occasion a flock of nocturnal flamingos.
Following his 65th birthday though, Jep receives a shock when the longtime husband of a girlfriend from his youth brings him the news of her recent passing and the discovery of a diary in which she names Jep as the only man she ever loved.
This puts him in an unusually retrospective if not nostalgic mood as he rejoins the nightly circus. Melancholy of a sorts seizes him but he never considers stepping off the nightly caravan with its seekers of art, religion or cocaine.
Rome has such riches to offer that he cannot deny himself its pleasures. He can only marvel at its capacity to distract and how spirituality and emptiness can commingle at the same moment.
He looks up an old friend, who runs a strip joint that features the man’s own 42-year-old daughter (an earthy though grounded Sabrina Ferilli). Jep is taken with her and only later learns of her sad secret.
Jep’s sense of the absurd is tickled by an encounter with an ancient cardinal (Roberto Herlitzka) brimming with culinary recipes, then a 104-year-old saintly nun living a life of true poverty (Mother Teresa being the obvious model) — she too wonders why he hasn’t written another book — and a penniless old prince and princess who hire themselves out to attend parties as noble relics of another age.
Unlike Jep, one fellow writer (comic actor Carlo Verdone) frets over his lack of creative output and is forever promoting a stage play to feature an actress on whom he dotes but who has no use for him. Jep tells him to drop her; he ignores the advice.
Thus has Sorrentino updated Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”: Rome and therefore Italy are caught in a snapshot signaling eternal stagnation. Its political institutions are in disarray and seduction seemingly the only occupation as inertia grips nearly everyone.
His friend does mount a show, however, and Jep even entertains thoughts of writing again — although you wouldn’t want to take any bets on this happening. Rome remains in grand decline, as it seems to have for such a long time.
Sorrrentino’s cinematographer Luca Bigazzi — like nearly everyone else he is a longtime collaborator — lets his camera glide gracefully amid a cityscape of streets and piazzas, palazzi and statues that feel haunted by the past yet waiting for its future.
As the final credits roll, his camera floats in a boat down the Tiber. Another day will come and go but the beauty of Rome never changes.
Opens: November 15, 2013 New York; November 22 Los Angeles (Janus Films)
Production companies: Indigo Film in association with Medusa Film, Babe Films, Pathé, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Massimo De Francovich, Roberto Herlitzka, Isabella Ferrari, Dario Cantarelli, Giulio Brogi
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenwriters: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Producers: Francesca Cima, Nicola Giuliano
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Stefania Cella
Music: Lele Marchitelli
Costumes: Daniela Ciancio
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
No rating, 142 minutes