In last week's Scene, talking about the Belcourt's ongoing Coen brothers retrospective, Michael Sicinski wrote that if viewers feel "movies must reflect reality with maximum fidelity and minimal intervention," they're pretty much alienated from the start by the Coens' universe of warped, outsized figures and exaggerated details. The same could be said of Italy's Paolo Sorrentino. Though he's been making features since the early Aughts, the only one of his movies to play Nashville before now was 2008's Il Divo, a biopic of the notorious Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti so stylistically brazen it made GoodFellas' extended coke montage seem like a quilting social. If his movies were cars, they'd start in third gear, then hit the gas.
But the flipside of Sicinski's statement is just as true. If you're sick of movies that treat flat realism and stunted imagination as a default setting, Sorrentino's cartwheeling new film The Great Beauty comes as a tonic — a drama whose nimble, inexhaustible high style paradoxically evokes the time, life and youth whizzing past its wistful hero, Jep Gambardella, an aging celebrity journalist whose 65th birthday portends the eventual end of his electric nightlife. Familiar, huh? Yet even though Fellini in general and La Dolce Vita in particular are the movie's touchstones, its grounding is classical — in the paintings and statuary, tethers to something solid, that serve as fixed points the characters and camera whoosh past.
Just as antiwar movies often give directors a grand excuse to wheel out the munitions, movies about the emptiness of glamour are rarely less than a feast for the eyes. (Say what you will about Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby, he threw some bangin' parties.) Sorrentino stages crazy carnivalesque vampire balls of gyrating black-clad dancers, orgiastic revelers and shock-cut mariachi players threading through a voluptuously enticing Rome, but he is neither a hypocrite nor a scold. Jep's had a lot of fun since the publication of his one novel decades ago; the movie's about his dawning realization he's had little else, and nothing to replace it but the limited consolation of taste.
He's too smart and self-aware, however, to deny that he's had a ball. And since he's played by the wonderful Toni Servillo, an actor with a face like a rumpled map of worldly pleasures, he's an endlessly engaging companion. In Il Divo, Servillo was the gnarled Nosferatu at the center of a Machiavellian maelstrom. Here, lips curled and eyebrows raised like sensualist antennae, he makes the accumulation of abiding memories — the curve of a woman's back, the company of old friends, softly exhaled smoke — seem like a life's pursuit. Sorrentino too throws a bangin' party.