Italian film has a long history of the romantic, existential auteur struggling to navigate the distance between art and life. From Federico Fellini to Michelangelo Antonioni, the artist-as-protagonist has been a useful trope for visionary directors to distill beauty from everyday experience, even as it grants a useful, ironic distance that helps avoid the dangers of cheap sentiment. Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Belleza, translated as The Great Beauty, is a welcome and intriguing addition to this Mediterranean cinematic tradition.
The Great Beauty follows the aging writer Jep Gambardella (effortlessly played by Toni Servillo) through his upper-crust, Bohemian life in present-day Rome. He parties with the beautiful and the carefully preserved, argues and reminisces with old friends, and moves easily through the endless decadence that surrounds him. He searches for meaning in movement and memory, even as he deflects questions over his own productivity. The author of a single famous and successful book as a young man, the film depicts him forty years later in the days surrounding his lavish sixty-fifth birthday party.
The sharp cinematographic eye of Luca Bigazzi and wonderfully evocative score of Lele Marchitelli help bring Sorrentino's ambiguous vision to life, creating a world of sensual delight even as its protagonist wrestles with the struggle of finding meaning in this aesthetic wonderland. The score is supplemented with well-chosen contributions from the world of contemporary classical music - the choral selections from David Lang and John Tavener supply an eery religiosity at two of the film's key moments, while dissonant instrumental music from Henryk Gorecki and Vladimir Martynov is an effective contrast to the lush visual world of Gambardella's life in Rome.
Sorrentino masterfully carries the viewer through his non-traditional narrative, which eschews many of the basic expectations of a plot - romance without development, heartbreak without love, and epiphany with only a tantalizing ellipsis of foreshadowing. While the film flirts with the nihilism its protagonist sometimes feels, in the end it reaches toward an uplifting version of Continental existentialism, in this author's humble opinion. Nothing about the movie is clear beyond its gorgeous colors and thrilling set pieces. The film includes some unforgettable visual tableaux vivants, many of them compressed into one hallucinogenic sequence in which Jep wanders through the beautiful ruins and palaces of Rome's ancient inner city.
The Great Beauty has accumulated critical praise and honors, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It's not an easy movie, but as its title demands, it is a beautiful one. It will leave you musing, perhaps nostalgically wandering through your own memories. It will also leave you with a burning desire to visit its setting, the lavishly depicted capital of Rome, a gorgeous city like no other. It supplies no simple answers, but Sorrentino's film encourages us to continue exploring this life and its many beauties.