(Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Sorrentino finally hits his stride with The Great Beauty after a string of dazzling oddities and beautiful misfires. His talent has never been in doubt and each of his previous films is worthwhile, but here, for the first time, he feels like a mature artist, the energy and chutzpah of his style tamed and directed so that it services his subject matter.
That subject matter appears to be Rome itself, though the city is more like one of the film's main characters. The principle is Jep (Sorrentino muse Toni Servillo), a 65 year old socialite and writer who drifts around Rome's upper-class parties and events, unruffled by all the debauchery, hypocrisy and idiocy he witnesses. Instead Jep seems amused by it all, keeping a group of friends around him but somehow always a solitary figure.
The real subject is the change that comes over Jep soon after his birthday; he begins to reminisce, he wonders at lost opportunities and past mistakes. Death is on his personal horizon, and Sorrentino plays with this theme in ways both subtle and obvious; there is plentiful Catholic imagery (Jep lives in a building between a Convent and the Colisseum) and a fine extended set-piece at a funeral.
There are many set-pieces. This is an episodic tale, following Jep through his days and nights and occasionally meandering off to follow a supporting character for a scene or two before circling back to the brilliant Servillo, who always suggests the intelligence and soulfulness of his character.
That soulfulness is crucial, for it informs the film as well as the lead. The Great Beauty, as a Sorrentino film, is filled with breathtaking camera moves and excessive sequences (the early party scene, though brilliantly put together, goes on a minute or so too long). Many scenes unfold without dialogue, and this director is so good at that - he cuts these scenes to music with such virtuosity it seems only a matter of time before he makes a musical - that they are all pure pleasure.
But like his other work, such ostentatious style can feel exhausting. This is where The Great Beauty excels. From early on Sorrentino allows a little melancholy into his film.
It bursts into colour when the widower of Jep's first love comes to tell him that she has died, and the two old men weep together in a stairwell. From then on Jep is a little lost, and memories, dreams and reveries (he imagines the ocean in his bedroom ceiling) mingle with the many surreal sights thrown up by his social life, a mixture of sadness, satire and wry amusement informing it all. That sadness brings with it soul, a sense of longing that seems even present in the many slow beautiful crawls across Rome at sunset and down its streets after dark.
In a film seemingly deliberately referring to La Dolce Vita, such unexpected sadness is bracing, and in fact it makes some scenes in the later stages extremely moving. But balancing that is always Sorrentino's scathing portraits of members of the Church, the Intellectual elite, showbiz types and fading nobility - this is a portrayal of Berlusconi's Italy with some real savagery in it.
It is also one of the great Rome films, and one of the best Italian films of recent years.