Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a man at the height of his powers. As one of Rome's foremost journalists, he's spent nearly forty years living as the self-described king of the high life, writing about and sleeping with only the best people, amassing a considerable fortune and, more importantly, personal influence as a result. As he turns 65, he starts to reflect on his life and career, on the women he has loved and lost, and the general malaise of his social set. Life around Jep is one big party, but what the hell is anyone celebrating?
Given its Roman setting and focus on a spiritually lost writer, it's not hard to see The Great Beauty as writer-director Paolo Sorrentino paying homage to the work of Federico Fellini. La Dolce Vita is the most obvious touchstone - Jep is like an older, slightly more rueful version of that film's Marcello Rubini - but the use of flashbacks and moments of playful surrealism, such as one instance in which Jep wakes up after a heavy night to discover that his balcony is overrun with flamingos, point more towards the likes of 8½ and Amarcord. Sorrentino also tips his hat to the works of Antonioni and Rossellini at various points in the film, though Fellini's influence is the most overwhelmingly apparent since The Great Beauty encompasses both the exuberance and introspection of the great director's work.
If it was merely an extended riff on the works of earlier directors, The Great Beauty would still be one of the most enjoyable films of the year, even if it would ultimately be something of a shallow experience. Sorrentino applies his considerable panache as a stylist to capturing the energy and excitement of the many parties that make up a solid chunk of the film's running time, creating an intoxicating (and intoxicated) atmosphere of aimless decadence. Sorrentino seems to view the parties as empty spectacle or, in the quieter moments, opportunities for fruitless navel-gazing and self-delusion, both signifying a spiritual and intellectual emptiness, but that doesn't stop him from making them look like a hell of a lot of fun.
There's a slightly assaultive quality to the way in which the parties are handled, thanks to a combination of rapid editing, pounding dance music, and a general sense that there are about fifty stories happening at the same time. It captures the beautiful chaos of a really raucous party, and gives the film an unstoppable momentum that carries it through the more contemplative scenes of Jep strolling around Rome. They also work as a great shorthand for the kind of writer and person that Jep is; funny, sexy, but ultimately kind of wasted. It helps that he's played by Servillo, a man who radiates charisma from the very moment that he quite literally shimmies onscreen, while also being able to give a sense of being thoroughly exhausted, and of constantly feeling like he should be doing something, even though he's not sure what.
That sense of a tremendous talent being pissed away is beautifully illustrated by the one instance in the film where Jep actually does his job by interviewing a performance artist (one whose act is not a million miles away from the one Vulva performs in Spaced) who he clearly has nothing but contempt for. He gets a funny interview out of it, but you really feel as if he could be doing a lot more than riling faux-intellectuals and celebrities. The frequent references that other characters make to the one novel that Jep wrote as a young man, and his own inability to offer a satisfying answer as to why he never followed it up, further underline the idea that while Jep has had a tremendous amount of success over his career, he could have done something more substantial.
That sense of wasted potential, exemplified by Jep but reflective of Italian society as a whole, is what makes The Great Beauty more than just a playful homage. Sorrentino isn't just messing around by trying to recreate a Fellini film, but commenting on contemporary Italy in much the same way that Fellini did with La Dolce Vita. The story of a man realising that he has achieved everything that he could possibly want and that it means absolutely nothing is not a new one - it's probably one of the defining stories of the last 100 years - but it's one that bears repeating, especially in the context of post-Berlusconi Italy, a place where corruption and decadence have eroded idealism so thoroughly. The fact that most of Jep's friends are former political activists who have gradually settled into lives of comfort highlights that sense of wasted potential, and of an intellectual elite who have been sidelined by the joys of doing nothing much at all.
There's a swooning, romantic quality to The Great Beauty, one best expressed through its luminous visuals, but also a sense of genuine emptiness, and of a man, be it Jep or Sorrentino himself, searching for some meaning in a world where wealth, power and fame are prized above true beauty. Much like its central character, its exuberance hides a yearning for something more profound. Neither may actually find it, but the search for transcendence is more crucial than the acceptance of mundanity.