To celebrate his 65th birthday, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) throws one hell of a party. The view is spectacular, the alcohol is flowing freely, and everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — is having an amazing time. At first, you mistake the scene for a hip, happening night club, and as it turns out, you wouldn’t be too far off. Dancers gyrate on the bar, in display cases in the wall, and amongst the mixed crowd of middle-aged men and women. There’s even a cake with a lady hidden inside. What could be better than this?
Well, in a voiceover, Jep tells us that he came to Rome when he was 26, and he fell into the whirlpool of the high life. He wanted to be king of that high life, and oh, how he has succeeded. Attending exclusive parties was for amateurs — he wanted (and attained) the power to make those parties a failure. However, at 65, Jep, who wrote an extremely successful novel years ago, has become more contemplative. He still goes to parties and has dinners with his friends, but one evening, he is sobered by tragic news about a woman he loved in his younger days. Confronted with memories of his past, Jep begins to pay closer attention to his present. He observes children gleefully playing in a courtyard, and he strolls along streets and rivers, taking in the beautiful scenery and architecture. He interviews artist Talia Concept, who in her performance runs head-first into a stone wall and later speaks to him about “vibrations” in life that she won’t explain. Jep tries to comfort Viola (Pamela Villoresi), who unconditionally loves her son as he slowly loses his sanity, and he also supports Romano (Carlo Verdone), who keeps trying to write plays and poetry, but just can’t seem to get it right. One night, Jep visits his friend, a strip club manager whose 42-year old daughter dances for money that she just can’t hold onto, and Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) becomes a close companion of his. In everything — dinners, friendly chats, weddings, and parties — Jep begins to recognize beauty lost in the familiar.
The Great Beauty is a love story for beauty and detail and how we miss them by getting wrapped up in our own disappointment. At one point, Jep tells us that nostalgia is the only distraction left for those who have no faith in the future. We, the audience, are fortunate enough to be with him as he learns to refocus on the present. One evening, he takes Ramona on a walk through “Rome’s most beautiful buildings,” courtesy of his friend Stefano (Giorgio Pasotti). They walk amongst shadowy paintings, sculptures, and peaceful silence that starkly contrast the chaos of the parties Jep frequently attends. Later, he enters a courtyard, discovering a giraffe towering above him. Arturo (Vernon Dobtcheff), the man who recently lost his wife, is an illusionist working on his latest trick — making a giraffe vanish. Jep asks if he can make him vanish, but Arturo shakes his head, smiling. “It’s all a trick,” he says, and Jep considers the immense truth in those words.
The film gifts us with sequences like these and others in which we behold the gorgeous Italian landscape in conjunction with the amazing simplicity of enjoying the moment. The composition of each shot is stunning, balanced with light, color, and life, and I just can’t find it in me to steal from you the experience of seeing them yourselves by describing more of them. The accompanying music also stays with you, as I’ve now discovered (and can’t forget) the heartbreaking melody of Vladimir Martynov’s “The Beatitudes,” a track which is repeated on a serene boat trip down the Tiber River during the end credits.
The Great Beauty follows the experience of a man who is constantly being asked why he never wrote another book. He brings up Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, who, he says, tried to write a book about nothing and failed. Flaubert was especially talented at blending the real with the ideal, and director Paolo Sorrentino’s juxtaposition of the real and the ideal gets under your skin in a similar fashion. As Jep Gambardella rediscovers beauty around him, he thinks about that second book. Why did he never write it? He says, “I was looking for the great beauty, but I didn’t find it.” His journey through this film brings the beauty back to him, and to us. Who knew? It’s always there — we just have to look.