Beautiful Ruins

The Great Beauty is a glorious jumble, which is fitting for a movie that’s about life, the universe and everything (to borrow a very useful phrase from Douglas Adams) — and a little bit about nothing at the same time. Plot-wise, there’s not much to it: After turning 65, novelist-turned-journalist Jep (Toni Servillo) has a bit of an existential crisis about his shiny, glamorous life. Sort of. (In an interview, director Paolo Sorrentino aptly called his film’s plot “fragile.”) Over the decades, Jep has positioned himself as the life of the party, surrounding himself with equally well-off friends, none of whom seem to do any work. Occasionally, Jep meets with his editor, and he conducts one interview with a performance artist called Talia Concept (Anita Kravos). But he doesn’t interview her so much as poke her about motives and ideas. What does she mean, vibrations? Who does she think she’s kidding?

This is one of several scenes in which Jep appoints himself the grandmaster of destroying illusions, which would make him an unbearable pain in the ass in real life. As a character, he’s equal opportunity in his cynical commentary, which melts into a peculiar gentleness at the end of one notable condemnation. “We’re all on the brink of despair,” he says to a friend. It’s absurd; they’re all sipping wine and cocktails on Jep’s lovely terrace, with its view of the Coliseum (or of the mysterious, impeccably dressed upstairs neighbor). But their generation is fading, and none of them seem to know what to do with themselves, or with the awareness of the lives they never got around to living.

The Great Beauty feels like a thick, character-driven novel, in large part because Sorrentino’s characters are never distillations of an idea, but fully formed, flawed people whose lives aren’t entirely centered on our protagonist. You could follow passionate Stefania (Galatea Ranzi) and the frustrated writer Romano (Carlo Verdone) offscreen, and their lives would spool out as fully as Jep’s does. (While the women in Sorrentino’s film slot into the classic trio of mother, maiden and crone, the characters aren’t archetypes, though they do represent three of jaded Jep’s hangups: the girl his younger self was in love with; the family he never had; the ancient nun who seems to know the secrets of life.)

The film’s world slips just a step sideways from ours; its characters’ imperfect lives spool out against the beauty of Rome and rub up against fading royalty and men who have keys to all the city’s beautiful buildings. Unusual juxtapositions of story, music and image create scenes that push the ordinary just a toe over the edge: a Botox clinic as near-performance art; boutique shopping in a space that echoes like a museum, or a cathedral; a field of couples dancing at a barely glimpsed wedding. Nothing is quite surreal, but it’s not really real, either — a feeling heightened by the wonderful, dizzying use of music from across the spectrum. The Great Beauty’s soundtrack will lead you emotionally, sure, but not to the places you’d expect. 

Servillo’s expressive, oddly handsome face helps make Jep more sympathetic than maybe he deserves, but Sorrentino’s film never stoops to passing judgments on its characters, who are all stuck in nostalgia loops. Whether it’s for lost love or lost passions, lost fame or lost importance, or success that never came, they’re all missing something, despite all the things that shine brightly off the screen. This is a movie steeped in death and endings, but where it could have been cynical and biting, it’s oddly, inescapably uplifting. Like last year’s Holy Motors (but far less weird), The Great Beauty is a slippery film, the kind you don’t want to pin down; much better to let it drift around, seeping into your thoughts. It’s just a life, full of strangeness and beauty, abounding with some things and lacking others.

THE GREAT BEAUTY: Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Screenplay by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello. Cinematography, Luca Bigazzi. Editing, Cristiano Travaglioli. Music, Lele Marchitelli. Starring Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Galatea Ranzi and Pamela Villoresi. Janus Films, 2013. Not rated. 142 minutes. Four and a half stars.