Have you ever met someone who makes an indelible impression on you and then, years later, not recognise the same person in a different guise?
There is a reason for this question as the man pictured is Toni Servillo playing Giulio Andretti in Il Divo (2008). Andretti was prime minister of Italy seven times after democracy was restored to his country in 1946. The movie was written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino.
The brilliant performance by Servillo was matched only by Sorrentino’s story of the political intrigue of Andretti and his cabal of loyal party members. Their actions took political deviousness to a new high, all controlled like puppets by the wily Andretti, who, on film, looked even more harmless and hunched over than the photo depicts.
Five years later, Sorrentino has given the world The Great Beauty, a story of Rome, a section of its artistic and noble set, told to us by Jep Gamberetta, (Servillo) an author and journalist presenting the writer-director’s take on what Fellini blessed us with in La Dolce Vita (1960).
Where he played Andretti hunched and small and dark, Servillo plays Jep erect, tall and colourful. I had no idea I had seen this man before yet my eyes were rarely away from him while he was on screen.
The comparisons between The Great Beauty and La Dolce Vita are manifold but a journalist main character, art – both avant garde and historical – tragedy, missed opportunities in love, bizarre and outrageous side characters, and a world-weary voice searching for a meaning are just some of these as Jep, celebrating his 65th birthday at a wild party in Rome, begins to wonder about his life. Having written a best seller while young and for years the trendsetter of his stylish group, the seductive Jep resists all offers to write another book because he cannot find ‘the great beauty’ needed to inspire him.
Whether this be the Rome he has grown weary of, his first love whose death comes as a great surprise to him or a religious connection, we are left to ponder. Certainly Jep begins to look past his superficial life of nightclubs and parties, from where he is coming home as most get up to work, and look elsewhere.
The film is long but has many vignettes, all involving Jep and his late-in-life search for epiphany. It has sadness, humour, elegance (above all else, I wanted his wardrobe) but overall The Great Beauty celebrates Rome and takes its audience to places even the best-credentialled tour guide may not be able to share with you. Even the early morning views of the city are those most residents and tourists would not see.
There isn’t time to write an essay and to attempt to explain the plot would spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it because one of The Great Beauty’s best features is the uncertainty of where it would go next (or even when it was going to finish).
It was absorbing and indeed beautiful.