The Great Beauty takes a while to take on a structure—and, with true Fellini dreaminess, rarely holds onto a cohesive storyline. The film opens with a seemingly unrelated scene—a lyrical and sun-dappled scene as Japanese tourists explore one of Rome's hillside chapels, before one man drops dead from a heart attack—and then jumps to a raucous nighttime party, with gyrating beauties and quipping socialites.
But even then, set in this Carnival-style party, it still takes times, as the camera visits character after aloofly cool character, before even that event takes shape; it is Jep Gambardella's 65th birthday. Yet even with that information—and a few biographical tidbits about Jep to temporarily pin down the billowing circus tent of the movie—The Great Beauty tends more toward a poetic chaos than a Hollywood structured film. It is an ambitious artistic endeavor, and it is an antiquated narrative mode, and, after all of that, The Great Beauty is a huge success, as enchanting and stirring (but less autobiographical) as Fellini's legendary 8 1/2.
As much as there is a grounded storyline and as much as it matters to the overall success of the film, Jep, whose birthday kicks off the movie, we discover through allusions and tossed-off lines, wrote a seminal novel in his mid-20s. Since then, he has existed more as, in his words, "the king of high life," and a celebrity journalist. He meanders through his days, mingling with friends—and he seems to know everyone who's anyone in Rome—and passing time experiencing the city's art, music and absurdist theater. As he later explains with the whimsical melancholy that lingers around him like late evening fog, "Rome makes you waste your life."
While it is Jep's casual assessment, yet at times searing insights, into his life, perhaps of more importance is the film's overall poetic contemplation on aging, friendship, and art—and, as much as Jep is the central character, on whom the film is loosely tethered, the city of Rome plays a critical and exquisite backdrop, with haunting strolls by the canals and elegant patio dinner parties chattering with aloof and bored sophistication, tossing off haughty assessments like, "The Ethiopian jazz scene is the only interesting one right now."
It is a fun, amusing and deeply stirring film.
At the recent Golden Globes, The Great Beauty won best Foreign Language Film, and it is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards.
Dir. Paolo Sorrentino
Plays Tin Pan Theatre