For all his lasting cultural significance, Federico Fellini has influenced relatively few contemporary filmmakers. Even citing fellow Italian Paolo Sorrentino (This Must Be The Place, Il Divo) is a stretch; it’s true that Sorrentino skews brash and overstuffed, whereas the current vogue is for spare and understated, but his decidedly modern whirling-dervish style bears little resemblance to Fellini’s much more stately extravagance. With The Great Beauty, however, there can be no question that Sorrentino hopes to pull off his generation’s La Dolce Vita (which did well to retain its Italian title; this one should probably have stuck with La Grande Bellezza). A lovely but rambling excursion through moneyed Rome, the film can’t have remotely the same impact as its predecessor, but it does offer a cornucopia of dazzling images—so many, frankly, that it becomes a bit exhausting, especially at nearly two and a half hours.
Just as Fellini repeatedly cast Marcello Mastroianni as his alter ego, Sorrentino returns again and again to Toni Servillo, here playing his fifth starring role for the director. As Jep Gambardella, an indolent journalist in late middle age who’s still dining out on the one critically successful novella he published decades earlier, Servillo inhabits a nearly continuous state of bored euphoria, attending an endless series of extravagant parties, ludicrous performance-art pieces (example: a naked, blindfolded woman charging headfirst into a concrete wall), and self-justifying salons. Only very, very gradually does it become apparent that Jep is experiencing an awakening of sorts, spurred by the news that one of his first loves, who dumped him and married someone else but kept a torch burning nonetheless, has just died.
The Great Beauty is a hard film to get a grip on, because each anecdotal scene is largely independent of those that precede and follow it, and Jep’s character arc (for lack of a less odious phrase) has been strategically buried. Sorrentino always works in an emphatic, free-associative mode, but the assault of quick cuts and lurching camera moves that open this film is hyperactive even by his standards; if the movie maintained that frenetic pace throughout, it would become unbearable. The insanity has a purpose, however—its sudden grind to a halt, like a cassette tape being eaten by rollers, is surpassingly eerie—and once the film settles down, it becomes a rollicking yet melancholy tour of a city so spectacular and historic that it paralyzes its inhabitants. Servillo’s rueful smile and courtly demeanor—even amid wild depravity—serve as an anchor, and there are so many alternately hilarious and (yes) beautiful interludes dotting the film’s landscape that it’s hard to begrudge its apparent aimlessness.