“The Great Beauty,” which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for 2013, has been compared favorably to a classic Italian film, Fellini’s “8 ½,” made decades before, and the comparison shows how well-received this film has been and how Italian film continues to dazzle and intrigue viewers from around the world. Directed and co-written by Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty, like Fellini’s earlier masterpiece, centers on a man (“Jep” played by Toni Servillo) who is trying to find his way in a world that has been good to him (he’s a writer) but that doesn’t seem to be very good itself. Blessed with an apartment in Rome overlooking the Coliseum, he throws lavish parties, sleeps in late, and seemingly has the world as his oyster. To try and describe the plot of this film would be pointless though, since rather than engaging in a traditional narrative arc, Sorrentino gives us an episodic structure showing numerous facets of the world Jep is living in—a world of beautiful women who offer themselves to him, (but that he walks away from), of mentally ill children of friends lost in their own literary worlds, of avant-garde artists and writers and magicians, of a man grieving over his dead wife (and the diary she wrote), of a cardinal alleged to be a great exorcist but who wants to talk about cooking, and, finally, in the closing scenes of the film, a nun (or “future saint” as some call her) who barely talks yet embodies more discipline and insight than almost anyone else in the story.
At 142 minutes, the film takes its time with all these characters and episodes, but the story is helped immensely by the beauty of its cinematography and the feeling that Sorrentino will eventually take us beyond the conventional wisdom that the rich and socially elite of Rome (as elsewhere) are vapid party-goers interested only in the tiny world of their set. That set of people has access to much of the “great beauty,” but whether they appreciate it in its deepest forms or not is another matter, and by the end of the film we can at least say we know some of that beauty exists, some of it in the present, but some of it in the past, living on in memories as simple and humble as that of a first kiss.
(This film is not rated, but does contain some nudity)