Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” nominated for a Best Foreign-Language Oscar, is unimaginable without Federico Fellini. And just as unimaginable without Silvio Berlusconi. Fellini knew life was a circus, hence the clowns and midgets. What is seen by Sorrentino’s hero, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), as he compares the ancient glories of Rome with its contempo trashiness, is a city inhabited by clowns who’ve been trained by a midget.
Sorrentino’s exhilarating and sardonic drama juxtaposes the glories of the Eternal City and vulgarity of its inhabitants, and there seems little question where Sorrentno is laying the blame. Berlusconi not only ran the country, he ran Italian television, and just as he personified a bunga-bunga mentality in office, he made that same sensibility a staple of his multiple TV stations -- outlets for wholesale vulgarity, the whorification of women, a race to the bottom -- all of which was presented to the camera with pursed lips and thrusting hips. The characters in “The Great Beauty,” especially at the beginning of the film, behave the same way, with no sense of a tomorrow and surrounded by yesterday.
Unlike Fellini, Sorrentino erases the line between excess and normality, and his moral world is round -- too round, inasmuch as there’s no cliff anyone can run off. In his morally stationary position, Jep may not be the last honest man, but he’s one of the few around and, most importantly, he is honest about himself. Long ago, he wrote a book. He has been dining off it ever since. He is in a trap, and he knows it: A fixture on the Roman party circuit, he looks around him with a kind of affectionate disgust at the people who spend their money, and others', so recklessly and pointlessly. He also can’t write another book -- he’d be eaten alive. He knows his artistic impulse was really an appetite for fame, which he has, and refuses to give up. He refuses to become one of those people with whom he spends every evening.
One would call them hedonists, but hedonism is reactive, a protest against some manner of civility. Roman civility having become as enfeebled as the Coliseum, which Jep gazes upon from his terraced apartment. Hedonism has become nihilism and, ultimately, meaningless.
For all this, “The Great Beauty” is a wondrous piece of filmmaking, one that serves up the sublime and the grotesque in equal measure. It’s also very funny, thanks to Jep’s unblinking reaction to a fallen empire that has no clothes. One of Sorrentino’s sharpest, cruelest and funniest scenes is Jep’s interview (for a magazine run by a dwarf -- hello Fellini!) of a performance artist named Talia Concept, whose routine involves running naked into a wall and bloodying her head. When Ms. Concept makes statements like “I live on vibrations,” Jep refuses to swallow the artspeak. When he insists she explain herself, she can’t. He reduces her to tears. And it’s a guilty pleasure.
“The world is no longer sophisticated,” someone says. But Jep is -- especially if you consider sophistication as the ability to keep your head while all those around you are gleefully giving up their dignity. If there’s a complaint to be had with “The Great Beauty” it’s that Sorrentino makes it all too easy for audiences to see themselves as Jep, rather than the consumers of a poisoned culture. But no one will leave the film not feeling just a little more sophisticated.