A return to form after the misstep that was the This Must Be The Place, Paulo Sorrentino offers up some musings on life, death, regret art and love. That's everything, then. You might be tempted to brush up on your Fellini, as some of the references may slip by unnoticed, but The Great Beauty can be enjoyed whether or not you're au fait with the Italian master.
Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, a writer in his sixties who has preferred to wallow in the hedonistic lifestyle Rome has to offer than writing a follow up to this award-winning novel, written so many years ago now it's been lost to memory. Strolling from one fabulous party to the next, Jep finally questions his frivolous life when he's approached by a husband of the only woman he ever loved. This rude barging of reality into his life shakes Jep and forces him to face up to himself…
Heavy stuff, then? Yes and no. Sorrentino delivers the weighty issues with a feather light touch and Servillo's pleasant facade sets the floaty tone. Underneath this carefree vibe, however, serious feelings lurk and when Sorrentino allows them to bubble up they can overwhelm. During a typical drinks session on his balcony, Jep delivers a withering deconstruction of a woman's life; while cruel, what he says is true and the point is made: maybe Jep is right keeping emotional truth at bay - no good can come of it.
The beauty of Sorrentino's film is that one can choose to enjoy it from start to finish (possible despite the two-and-half-hours running time) or one can enjoy it in fits and starts; it is a film of sequences, of snatching emotions and remembering moments here and there, and if one moment doesn't hit home, the next one will.
At times it looks like The Great Beauty wants to have its cake and eat it. It parodies art for art's sake - a performance artist is revealed as a sham, and Jep's mysterious neighbour exclaims that he runs the city while Jep and his coterie merely use it. Why there is a statue of a polar bear is in his editor's office remains a mystery.
The lack of a straightforward linear narrative may irk some, but tap into The Great Beauty's dreamy story and a strange and beautiful world opens up.