Roma o morte—”Rome or death”—reads the inscription on a statue at the beginning of The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s wondrous depiction of high and low society. As seen through the tired but still acute eyes of journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), Garibaldi’s rallying cry might be changed to “Rome and death,” or possibly “Rome is dead,” for the Eternal City seems near exhaustion, perhaps clinically post-mortem, but still partying defiantly at its own wake.
In his youth Jep wrote an acclaimed novel, The Human Apparatus. Now he is 65, with a fabulous terrace apartment overlooking the Colosseum, and the debauchers who have gathered at his birthday celebration chatter and dance the night away like the guests at a Gatsby revel. Secure in his reputation as “king of the socialites,” Jep is gnawed by unrealized promise. He could not complete his second novel because, he says, “I was looking for the great beauty, and I never found it.”
(READ: Mary Corliss on Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo)
Beginning with the sudden death of a Japanese tourist and ending with a 103-year-old nun’s arduous climb on her knees up the steps of St. John’s Church, The Great Beauty is gratefully indebted to three films by Federico Fellini: La Dolce Vita, 8½ and Roma. Like the Marcello Mastroianni character in La Dolce Vita, Jep is a fastidious observer and enervated participant in Rome’s night life. Like Mastroianni in that film and 8½, he is bewitched and haunted by the vision of a seraphic young woman, his first love (“Now here’s something I want to show you,” she says before opening her blouse in Jep’s intensest memory.) Sorrentino—who won Cannes’ Jury Prize in 2008 for his Il Divo, also starring the great Servillo—is as preoccupied as Fellini with the way people fight emotional stasis with wild movement. He stuffs, nearly engorges, this 2 hour-and-20-minute film with outrageous and gloriously visual anecdotes.
One of these offers a clue to Sorrentino’s theme. On the Tebaldi estate, Jep encounters an exhaustive art project: more than 10,000 portraits of a man who was photographed every day of his life, by his father and later by himself, as one person’s record of his promise and growth and—since the man is still in his thirties—a preview of his decline. Jep, who has written about nearly everyone, and slept with them too, finds that he is on that slope to oblivion. As a child, he had loved “the smell of other people’s old houses.” His educated nose can still pick up the scent of grandeur, the rank odor of decay. And now he can smell it in himself.
Like Sorrentino’s corrosive comedy The Family Friend, shown at Cannes in 2006, the new film sees old men as vampires who sustain themselves by supping on the vitality of the young. And like Il Divo, his acid-etched portrait of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, The Great Beauty mixes journalism and satire. The odd and saving additions: an affection for nearly all of its outsize characters, and a melancholy that the flaming creatures of his acquaintance will soon burn out. Jep’s oldest friend, the aging poet Romano (Carlo Verdone), gets to this point when he asks, “What’s the matter with nostalgia? It’s the only thing left for those of us who have no faith in the future.”
(READ: Richard Corliss on Sorrentino’s A Friend of the Family)
The Great Beauty, an essay on nostalgia, gives even the cynics a faith in the vibrancy of movies and the reviving artistry of Paolo Sorrentino. The movie, which was shut out of official prizes at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, will have to make do with our citation: it is the year’s grandest, most exhilarating foreign film.