Throughout his career, Paolo Sorrentino, director of Il Divo and The Family Friend, has endured comparisons with Federico Fellini. Like his distinguished compatriot, Sorrentino enjoys grand gestures, busy chaos and borderline surrealism. Sorrentino has, to date, been a cooler film-maker than the other Italian, but the parallels are far from ludicrous.
There are two ways of addressing such critical handcuffing: move in an entirely fresh direction or vigorously embrace your supposed influence. Sorrentino takes the latter option in his most sumptuous and moving film to date.
The Great Beauty plays like an extended riff on Fellini's La Dolce Vita, with bits of 8½ (celebrating its half century this year) offering rhythmic asides. Like La Dolce Vita, it follows a jaded journalist as he uncovers decadence and pretention in contemporary Rome. As in 8½, the hero is saddled with crippling artistic constipation.
We begin with a characteristically off-centre gag – a Japanese tourist collapses in a heap after taking photographs of the eternally beautiful Roman skyline. You could view this as a warning for Stendhal Syndrome suffers to compare with the phrase about “flash photography” that appears in so many news reports. Beware: much beauty is to come.
Played with resigned, stoical grace by Toni Servillo (who is to Sorrentino as Marcello Mastroianni was to Fellini), Jep Gambardella is celebrating his 65th birthday at an extravagant party that is either, depending upon your view, a bacchanalian delight or a savage indictment of all that is wrong with post-Berlusconi Italy. Jep was once a promising novelist, but, following some emotional crisis, he abandoned fiction and became a chronicler of urban excess.
The film doesn’t have much of a plot, but it does have a story. We follow Jep as he wanders through an array of colourful affairs and slowly comes to terms with his failings as an artist and as a man. At each turn, we are simultaneously repelled and excited by the vulgarity on display.
A ludicrous performance artist runs stupidly towards an ancient aqueduct. At one of many parties, Jep encounters a child whose talents as an action painter do not quite live up to their billing. He slinks into an underground plastic surgery clinic that treats its clients as religious celebrants. He eventually ends up at a function for an ancient holy woman who has little meaningful wisdom to dispense.
Even if The Great Beauty didn't finish with a satisfactory emotional surge, the film would have undeniable value as an orgy of image and sound. Sorrentino layers modern classical music ( Arvo Pärt's setting of Robert Burns's My Heart Is in the Highlands is particularly well used) with Luca Bigazzi's saturated photography to hurry compliant viewers into a delicious trance. Few films released this year so urgently demand first viewing on the big screen.
The picture is, however, also a genuinely moving character study. In a sense, it’s a very long prelude to the next stage of Jep’s life. He picks up hints along the way as to where he went wrong. Visiting old pals in a middle-class house, he is suddenly taken by their ordinary niceness. His refusal to fully engage with the decadence clarifies that he has spent 40 years in a period of transition.
Occasionally Sorrentino himself gives in to poor taste: the film's casual attitude to female nudity is a tad unfortunate and unreconstructed. But, for the most part, The Great Beauty offers a remarkable synthesis of deep feeling and rampaging artifice. In the end, the exercise confirms Sorrentino's striking originality. When he is most like Fellini he is most unlike anybody else but himself.