Tears inspire laughter. Public Botox sessions are conducted in ornate parlors. Orange groves rest comfortably on urban balconies. A child's rage and artistic expression is commodified in front of an adoring crowd. Ceilings morph into oceans.
Paolo Sorrentino's absurd and contradictory version of modern Rome, as envisioned in his pristine new film, The Great Beauty, is truly a topsy-turvy carnival. When they aren't dancing like wild animals to techno music or spewing gossip, Italy's wealthy denizens are often stuck in a statuesque freeze surrounded by stoic posing statues. It's as if their own peacocking has done history's job, cementing them in outlandish shallowness for all to see.
Yet, The Great Beauty always relishes seamless movement. You can see it in Sorrentino's feathery camera, often beckoned into the sky by a gust of wind or a longing glance. It's readily apparent in Lele Marchitelli's swooning score, whose grand notes help sway the film like a boat being cradled by gentle ocean waves. Style has always been essential to the Italian auteur's filmmaking, but here it seems at peace with the story, not at war.
For those willing to observe the complexities of modern society in The Grand Beauty, life becomes a kind of reverse travelogue in which each gorgeous façade inspires not momentary awe but a journey back to one's roots. Tenacious memories are rekindled, and the past is given a second chance to breathe. Sometimes the pictures aren't so pretty.
Our guide is famed journalist and one-hit-wonder novelist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who, after celebrating a garish and traumatic 65th birthday, begins to see the cracks in his hollow worldview. Early on, Jep revels in the extreme indulgence of those surrounding him. But the news of a past love's death prompts a philosophical crisis, sending him into near-suffocating self-reflection.
We see the consequences of this shift during a love affair with an exotic dancer (Sabrina Ferilli) and lengthy dinner-party conversations with old friends. While they are resolved to a simple credo—just dance; it'll be alright—Jep can no longer tolerate the social posturing that's become his professional art form. So, he ventures out into the world, sometimes alone, searching for epiphany. Instead, he finds solace.
The Great Beauty's sometimes disjointed narrative stems from its wildly surreal view of passing time and resistance to traditional narrative forms. Jep's trek through Rome's streets, ruins and beyond are meant to be gap-riddled, split by sudden bursts of joy and doubt. Sorrentino asks a lot of his viewer; like Jep, one must embrace the possibility and ridiculousness of the moment, whether it's understanding the decorum at a posh funeral or witnessing an incalculable magic trick involving a giraffe.
Critiques of Italy's current political system and religious institutions can be found in the subplots of The Great Beauty. Jep's upstairs neighbor is a cross between an international terrorist and a corrupt Italian politician, which is yet another odd paradox that comes to a beautifully strange resolution. Even more important is the appearance of a self-serving Cardinal (Aldo Ralli) and a world-famous nun named Sister Maria (Sonia Gessner). The former is an emblem of high society, while the latter has dedicated her life to impoverished living.
Still, the most lasting and resonant image of The Great Beauty—which opens Friday, Jan. 17, at the Ken Cinema—is of Jep overlooking the Costa Concordia wreckage site. Earlier in the film, his editor has mentioned an assignment covering the disaster, but it's not clear if Jep's accepted it or if this is just a dream. Nevertheless, the massive cruise ship lies on its side, peeking out of the crystal blue Mediterranean Sea as if it were a child's toy momentarily adrift. Like Sorrentino's protagonist, it's an object of modern capitalism partially submerged and partially revealed.