The Great Beauty dir Paolo Sorrentino is a Fellini-inflected movie about Rome, its upper classes, how they live, why they feel the meaninglessness of life should be punctuated with train dancing (line dancing), and other debaucheries.
The main character is Jep who is a journalist with one novel to his credit. When asked why he didn’t write another, he eventually confesses, I was waiting for the Great Beauty, and it didn’t come. So the title refers to unfulfilled artistic promise, wasted lives, the illusion of success.
When the conversation is not so blunt, and revealing what the main character thinks of life, the images float, and bang and seduce and ravish our eyes. The opening fifteen minutes is a brilliant montage of dancing figures where we feel we know more about the dancers than we will ever find out, but their expressions, their gestures, their makeup, their hair, are all telling us what we need to know about their character. The movement and tone also contribute to a jocular kind of story which on occasion turns melancholy or strange, or in the case of the visiting saint, mystical. Like Fellini, Sorrentino is very fond of the Catholic Church’s taste in clerical dress. Jep more than once approaches a cardinal to ask a personal question, and we feel as if he might hint at some inner spiritual life that we have not quite seen on screen yet, and then the only question he comes up with is, Is it true that you were once a great Exorcist?
Still, in the middle of the movie, I felt the lack of narrative structure eating away at my patience. The movie is 142 minutes, and presenting striking images for me is not enough. I long for story. I realize that this is my weakness. And there is a narrative thrust. The movie begins with the journalist’s birthday, and leads us through several parties, funerals, visitations, affairs, and conversations that end with a conclusion. It just sort of meanders at times, and I got restless.
But what other movie can simply toss off a group of tourists shown worshiping the great architectural glories of Rome in contrast to the natives who ignore it or act blase or take it for granted. The director is not above worshiping the grandeur, the Great Beauty that is actually all around those lucky enough to live in the Eternal City. Toni Servillo, the leading actor who was in Il Divo, another Sorrentino film, is perfect for the part. He wears his tailored suits beautifully, and has a grace and breadth of feeling that keep us wrapped up in his queries.