The Great Beauty is indeed a beautiful film, a sumptuous pageant of the sights and sounds and various social strata of Rome, especially its sophisticated and decadent nightlife. The undisputed star of this fantastical nightlife is Jep Gambardella (Toni Serville), who wrote an acclaimed novel 30 years previous, and who has devoted himself to partying and womanizing ever since. Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) as homage to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the film opens amid the fevered revelry of Jep’s 65th birthday party. Despite the apparent emptiness of his playboy existence, and his palazzo apartment by the Coliseum, Jep seems happy; he does write an occasional article on Rome’s pretentious art scene, which he punctures with determined common sense, abetted by his spirited editor (Giovanna Vignola), who doesn’t let dwarfism hold her back from being the arbiter of Roma’s goings-on. Jep’s seemingly aimless wanderings through the Eternal City (including its religious orders) and his own social circles presents one spellbinding tableaux after another, so much so that it’s almost unnoticeable that Jep may be moving toward a new purpose in life, though he himself doesn’t realize it until late in the film, after a funeral and an encounter with a real-life saint (a sequence that is both wondrously comic and bizarrely moving).
Amiable Jep is marvelous company, a bon vivant who keeps his rapier intellect sheathed unless he’s forced to use it, and Sorrentino masterfully conveys the grandeur of Italian filmmaking from its hedonistic heights of the ’50s and ’60s. The Great Beauty is the favorite to win this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, but even if it doesn’t, any filmgoer with an appreciation for the cinematic good life, Continental-style, will want to luxuriate in this feast for the senses.