The cinematic event of last September was for this viewer undoubtedly Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty). This portrait of a writer in the throes of middle-aged ennui recalled the extravagances of the director’s 2008 Il divo and had me reaching for the likes of Fellini in search of comparators. All of which means that it may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you like your cinema lush and well-tended as opposed to coarse and handheld, then it may just be for you.
It begins with an extraordinary scene set in the early morning, high above the capital at a monumental fountain (times of day – and night – seem to have a definite importance in this piece, which is also a paean to the city of Rome). Some Chinese tourists are shepherded off a bus and given the tour guide treatment, while one of them wanders off to take a picture of the city spread out before him in the clear sunlight – and succumbs to a heart attack. Meanwhile a small choir of nuns sings from the monument’s gallery overlooking the piazza, as if commenting, chorus-like, on the scene. The camera all the while glides in tracks and crane shots, as if a disembodied spirit (a trick Fellini often used to play). The relation of this to the rest of the film is obscure, and indeed many will forget the existence of the scene before they leave the cinema, but it certainly introduces the themes of Rome and mortality, and establishes the baroque aesthetic of the rest of the film.
We next segue to one of those frivolous and dissipated party scenes so much a feature of La dolce vita (1960), and more recently Il divo. Through it struts our hero, Jep Gambardella, intoxicated with the fuss being made of him, and apparently unperturbed by his age amongst all this young fry (it is his 65th birthday). Gradually we become aware that he is a fêted writer, on the strength of one novel he wrote years ago, and that he now writes for a reasonably highbrow journal (in an early scene we see him intellectually humiliate a dancer-interviewee with his demolition of her pretentious act, involving head-butting a pillar of the aqueduct on the Appian Way.)
Jep lives alone, tended by his combative Portuguese housekeeper, and spends the long night hours attending dinner parties and strolling through Rome’s deserted streets or along the Tiber’s quays. Then, one day, the bereavement of an old friend causes him to remember his youthful affair with the deceased, who later left him and married this man, though Jep now learns she never loved him. The rest of the film is a coming to terms with this loss, a loss which is in fact decades old, symbolised by the diary which the husband has not bothered to keep, and by a search for a beauty comparable with the one he knew; not, one senses, the girl herself, but the moment, a moment we don’t see until the end.
For a time it seems as though Jep might have found a new muse in Ramona, the daughter of an old acquaintance, who has taken to stripping at her father’s Girl Bar well into her forties. But although there appears to be a tacit understanding between older man and younger woman, or because of it, no physical act takes place, and, in another of the film’s obscure turns, she disappears, apparently taken away by the illness for which she has been vainly seeking a cure (‘apparently’ because so much of the action is oneiric, it is not always clear what is real and what is imagined).
Through all of this we accompany Toni Servillo’s Jep, charmed by the charisma of the man so clearly adored by most of those around him, and whose high-handed words and deeds are invariably inspired by good intentions. His fruitless search through his acquaintances and surroundings, and in his memories, for some new subject worth writing about inevitably recalls the Guido of Fellini’s Eight and a Half, as the settings and characters do La dolce vita (a grotesque wreckage of a beauty here, a dried-up pseudo-socialist feminist there); and in Servillo, Sorrentino has certainly found his Mastroianni, for this is their fourth collaboration, constituting, in toto, the director’s best work. There is only space to evoke a handful of the film’s potent visual moments, its literate script, and nothing of its dense texture of musical quotations. For any who have looked back wistfully at their vanished youth, it is truly a thing of beauty.