Irish writer/director Conor Morrissey reviews Paolo Sorrentino's movie La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), which is set in Rome and was released in cinemas in London and Dublin, with English subtitles, on 6 September.
Throughout its history cinema has been lit up by those fortuitous collaborations where two great artists find in each other a harmony that brings an extraordinary creative vision to life. Francois Truffaut found it with Jean-Pierre Léaud, Federico Fellini found it with Marcello Mastroianni, Martin Scorsese found it with Roberto DeNiro. To this pantheon of greats we can add Paolo Sorrentino and Toni Servillo.
“La Grande Bellezza” is their fourth collaboration and one that builds on their previous achievements with “The Consequences Of Love” and “Il Divo”. It is both a swooning evocation of Rome at its most beguiling and decadent and a brilliantly observed character study. The peerless Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, an aging roué who, in his youth, wrote an acclaimed novel but subsequently gave up serious writing for the altogether more comfortable dual role of journalist and “man about town”. Jep is dapper, cultivated, self possessed and sardonic, a man whose life is spent at the centre of il vortice della mondanità (the swirl of the high life). His life may be superficial but his knowing grin suggests he is okay with that. Then one day a stranger appears at his door with a revelation that shakes Jep to the core, forcing him to examine his life.
Under Sorrentino’s exhilarating direction Jep’s subsequent journey is shot through with a beautiful mix of humour, tenderness, craziness and melancholy. He attempts to tilt the balance of his life away from the profane towards the sacred but the religious figures he encounters (including a brilliantly funny, gourmet obsessed cardinal played by Robert Herlizka) offer little in the way of consolation.
Ultimately this is a film about the difficulty of redemption. Jep may want to turn over a new leaf but he is too embedded in the artful web he has created for himself to entertain any serious notion of change. As his wry, melancholic expression suggests: he is doomed to take solace in the thousand consolations the Roman night has to offer. This is Sorrentino’s best film to date and the best film you are likely to see this year.