You’re in Rome, at the kind of party you’ve only ever imagined. The young and gorgeous mix with aging aristocrats on a terrace overlooking the Coliseum. These are the sort of people who can make line dancing look sophisticated, which is what they’re doing when a white-haired gentleman steps out of formation and turns to you. The action slows down as he gazes, lights a cigarette and muses in voice-over about the things a great writer notices.
So begins “The Great Beauty,” a film more ravishingly Felliniesque than many of Federico Fellini’s own movies. Director Paolo Sorrentino doesn’t simply mimic the master’s style and preoccupations, which anyone could do, but conjures the kind of emotions that made “La Dolce Vita,” “8 1 / 2 ” and others endure. He collects scenes of superficial extravagance and eccentricity, then finds the deeper yearnings they conceal.
The writer in that opening scene, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), could almost be an older version of the Marcello Mastroianni character in “La Dolce Vita.” Having published one very successful novel 40 years ago, Jep became “King of the High Life” and never penned another, instead doing just enough journalistic work to keep him in contact with everyone worth knowing in the city. That terrace by the Coliseum is part of his bachelor pad, where he recuperates after all-night revelry and hosts parties large and small. This last one was for his 65th birthday, and the milestone is making him more introspective than usual.
Jep’s nascent melancholy deepens when he’s visited by a stranger named Alfredo. He’s the husband of Jep’s first love, and he reports that she has died. Opening her private diary after her death, Alfredo learned that she remained in love with Jep her whole life, despite the fact that she, not Jep, broke things off.
A sense of loss dogs Jep afterward, but it’s a beautiful, suave sadness, the kind that might incline a man to linger more than usual over life’s sensory pleasures, delights that Sorrentino and fellow screenwriter Umberto Contarello readily supply. Abetted by Luca Bigazzi’s lush cinematography, they take us on candlelit tours of secret museums, peek into places where the wealthy are pampered and wander into an ancient ruin where a lone giraffe stands under a spotlight.
Many of these scenes tilt toward the surreal, making the most of Servillo’s unflappability: The actor looks like a man who has seen every form of decadence the human imagination can create, and participated in many of them. But Servillo gives Jep an intellectual spark and a generosity of spirit one doesn’t expect from a veteran of so many skin-deep friendships. When provoked by a woman who has been bemoaning the do-nothing narcissism of her peers, he calmly hacks apart her idealized self-image, then affectionately suggests that their whole social circle is similarly flawed. Uttering what could be the motto of a movie so focused on appreciating beauty where it can be found, he implores her: “We’re all in tatters. Pass the time with us nicely.”
The film reaches a natural, eloquent stopping point before it hits the two-hour mark, but it continues, altering course slightly to focus on a subplot involving the Catholic Church. This chapter may be more prosaic than what precedes it, telling us things we already understood about Jep’s new pursuit of deeper truths. But Sorrentino has his eye out for transporting moments — at daybreak on the terrace, for instance, where a flock of migrating flamingos has stopped to sleep. There, a withered nun, whose life of voluntary poverty is a silent rebuke to the luxury around her, expels what breath is in her lungs, blowing the birds on their way.
DeFore is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nudity, sexual content, strong language and drug themes. In Italian with subtitles.