Much has changed in the half century or so between Federico Fellini’s masterpiece “La Dolce Vita” and Paolo Sorrentino’s overwrought, Felliniesque opus “The Great Beauty.” Back in 1960, Fellini’s celebrity journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) and others in his profession were barely tolerated, and so Marcello was filled with ennui and self-loathing. In “Beauty,” Sorrentino’s celebrity journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has grown more famous than those he interviews. He has achieved legendary status, becoming an arbiter of taste who throws parties so exclusive and hip that even the pope is tempted to attend them. Yet Jep, too, is filled with ennui and self-loathing. In other words, the values of pop culture may have evolved, but ennui and self-loathing remain the same. As for the differences between Fellini and Sorrentino as filmmakers, the less said the better.
To Sorrentino’s credit, the first five minutes of the film suggest otherwise, combining elements of Fellini with “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) and a hint of Luis Buñuel. After a grim epigraph from Louis-Ferdinand Celine to the effect that everything is delusion and pain, the film hovers about Rome’s Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, where black-clad women in a marble niche sing something by Henryk Górecki. A middle-aged Japanese tourist smiles, takes a snapshot, and drops dead. This montage is cryptic, beguiling, edited with startling juxtapositions, and best of all, it doesn’t have much to do with what follows, an episodic tour of Jep’s banal reflections on his life.
Jep, it turns out, wasn’t always such a cynical sad sack. Back in the day, some 40 years before, he wrote his first and only novel, “The Human Apparatus,” regarded by some as a masterpiece. Then the good life seduced him and he started staying up all night and decided he wanted to be the king of high society. This he has achieved, but while celebrating his 65th birthday party in a typically decadent bash, with dancing, debauchery and backstabbing, he wonders if this is what he really wanted after all. He is at heart a serious writer, someone who likes “the smell of old people’s houses.”
Well, to each his own. Judging from the quality of his prose, which Jep intones at times in voice-over, he probably made the right choice after all. For the rest of the movie, in lieu of writing his next great novel, Jep wanders Rome gazing at beautifully shot nudes, sculptures, and ruins with an expression of knowing melancholy and Olympian detachment. Or he lounges at soirees and acts like a pompous boor, insulting women, exposing phonies, and waxing eloquent about life, transience, and the irony of it all. Cigarette in hand, his face reflecting sentimentality and arrogance, he has all the flaws, but none of the beauty of his counterpart in “La Dolce Vita.”