In Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" (1960), Marcello Mastroianni's character was a young gadabout journalist planning to write a book you suspect he'll never get around to writing. In Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty" -- which is also dolce about vita, but more jaded and knowing -- Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) did write a well-received book as a young man. Now, as he reaches the age of 65, he looks back on a career spent not writing an anticipated second book, and surveying a life lived for temporal pleasure amid a city of timeless beauty.
Sorrentino's juxtaposition of contemporary Roman indulgence and the Eternal City's place in history's imagination makes for a bittersweet epic in which a solitary character, Jep, stands in for the director, and us, and experiences an epiphany. Around Jep is a cast of characters who, in a way also reminiscent of Fellini, will always be in the dark. A self-righteous communist who is also a well-paid television star; a cardinal obsessed with gourmet recipes; artists who lack the insight or discipline to make art. Jep alone is capable of drinking in the sumptuous enlightenment provided by both Rome and the film around him. This aces out a lot of highly cultured Romans populating the movie, but since Jep is us, it's also very flattering to the audience.
The present is fleeting, the past is forever. How does one straddle the planes of existence that seem so pronounced in a city like Rome? By being Jep Gambardella, who embodies a self-awareness perhaps available only to fictional characters. In some ways, Jep can be seen as a creative person who is paralyzed by early fame, and he knows it. As he assesses his experiences -- along with those of the people around him, and the sense of immortality in which he revels -- there is a communion between the now and the dead that director Sorrentino makes curiously life-affirming.
PLOT An Italian author reflects on his life; a movie reflects on the Eternal City. Unrated.
CAST Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli
BOTTOM LINE Glorious, cynical and intoxicating. (In Italian with English subtitles.)