Brashly stepping up and standing beside Giovanni from Antonioni's "La Notte" and Marcello from Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" is Jep Gambardella from Paolo Sorrentino's "La Grand Bellezza." Go out on the town with this bunch and you are sure to observe plenty of outrageous behavior and perhaps have a melancholy romantic entanglement. Just be sure you are in a five thousand dollar tailored-suit, or don't bother humiliating yourself.
Translated into English the title of Sorrentino's film means "The Great Beauty," but, please, let's leave it in its mother tongue. There's not a single frame of this abundantly gorgeous film that isn't pure Italian. Gambardella's world-weary look back at his sweet life, eclipsed by his turning sixty-five, is a dizzying fantasia of flash and filigree, and what it lacks in direct narrative is well patched-over with frenetic and emotion-rich sequences. This movie is a sight and sound workout.
"La Grand Bellezza" is so indulgent it actually has three opening scenes - all marvelous. First, one of a series of moments unrelated to the plot in any strict way. The camera floats around a historical religious site, where Asian tourists snap photos. A man falls to the ground, perhaps victim to Stendhal Syndrome. Then black, and a scream. What follows is among the finest choreographed bacchanalia sequences I've laid eyes upon. At its close we meet Jep (Toni Servillo), debonair, cultured and just intellectual enough to feel great sadness at a beautiful life wasted on frivolous hedonism.
The third opening is Jep at work - he is an interviewer for culture journal and he's watching an performance piece where a naked woman wearing makeshift hijab and Soviet flag painted on her pubis rams her head into the side of a two-thousand year old aqueduct (as a perfectly framed train crosses the background at magic hour.) During the following interview Jep reduces her to tears and exposes her as a fraud with just a few sharp remarks. He isn't cruel, he's just seen it all, and, most importantly, he's unimpressed.
These episodes continue - Jep quietly strolls among Rome's most decadent and elegant settings at a slight remove. He easily seduces a gorgeous but intellectually unstimulating women. He ditches her, uninterested in looking at her Facebook photos, announcing in voice over that, at his age, there is simply no time to do things he doesn't want to do.
In time we learn that Jep as he is now is not quite what Jep envisioned for himself. As a young man he wrote a novel, and was involved in leftist causes and, naturally, had a pure, perfect love that got away. To Sorrentino's credit we only catch glimpses of this through flashbacks or overheard dialogue. Not much will stop the mad rush of Jep's study of the carnival that is modern Rome.
Along the way he meets a 12-year-old girl that's an action painter, visits an underground plastic surgery church, sees a man who can make giraffes disappear, looks at a photographer's lifetime of self-portraits, meets up with an old comrade/heroin junkie looking to marry off his 40 year old stripper daughter and, eventually, hosts a dinner party for a 104-year-old Mother Teresa-esque saint. This last one comes at the end and, not surprisingly, is the encounter with the most depth - though you shouldn't worry that the movie goes all soft or anything.
The great thing about "La Grande Bellezza" is that, once you get on its wavelength, you soon recognize that if one sequence isn't doing it for you, the next one might. At two-and-a-half hours Sorrentino offers up a maximalists' delight. Even with the expanded running time, however, it is very difficult to know or care about many of the side characters in Jep's life. "Wait, which one was that?" may be a common refrain among those discussing the picture afterwards.
SCORE: 7.7 / 10