The central conceit of director Paolo Sorrentino’s lovely, haunted 2013 “La Grande Bellezza” (The Great Beauty) is so absurdly wonderful that I was ready to crown him the King of Directors and the worthy recipient of dozens, nay, hundreds of future Oscars before I saw a single minute of his film. Sorrentino posits the existence of – get this – a celebrity journalist. The journalist, one Jep Gambardella (played with rueful magnificence by Toni Sevillo), is 65 years old, rich, bored, and coasting from lavish Roman party to lavish Roman party, all due to the notoriety of a masterful novel he wrote some 40 years ago. He’s written little of note since then, but he’s apparently the Italian equivalent of J.D. Salinger, and the equally bored, pampered wealthy of Rome are happy to trot him out and entertain him as their token trophy writer and celebrity playboy. And Jep is happy to drink their wine, shag their women, and conduct an actual journalistic interview or two from time to time to break up the pleasant, hedonistic ennui.
The first crack in this hazy, nocturnal existence occurs when Jep discovers that an old lover – the great love of his life, in fact – has recently died. Suddenly lost, set adrift in a world of endless intellectual babble and banality, all theory and no reality, Jep sets out to slowly, haltingly reconnect with his roots, with his former friends who were left in the wake of decades of the endless party. He falls in love, almost against his will, experiences more death and loss, tentatively seeks out some spiritual solace, and decides, at long last, to write a second novel.
And that pithy little summary doesn’t possibly do justice to the proceedings. It doesn’t do justice to the splendor of Rome, which deserves at least co-star billing beside Sevillo. It doesn’t do justice to the brilliant, sometimes deeply silly, sometimes deeply sad sendups of modern art that Sorrentino tosses in throughout the film. It doesn’t do justice to the deep, almost boundless sorrow and despair that anchors and drives nearly every character of significance. And it doesn’t do justice to the magnificent juxtaposition of spiritual vacuousness, emotional ennui, and lavish beauty that Sorrentino sets forth in almost every scene.
This is an old-fashioned film about the meaning of life. Nothing more and nothing less. There are no special effects. The characters do not neatly break down into groups of good people and bad people. There are merely broken people everywhere who strive to do well sometimes, and sometimes don’t care. It’s a film about beauty, which perhaps can save the world (Sorrentino would seem to argue so), but which absolutely makes it a better place. And it’s a beautiful film. I’m better for having seen it. Perhaps you will be too.