In The Great Beauty, a gorgeously shot picture of contemporary Rome, albeit fictional, it is refreshing to see that this tourist mecca of monumental historic significance has a shallow center just like all the other important world cities of note. You could say this movie whose central character is a writer of one novel so many years ago who has evolved into a journalist of art, parties, and society gossip is like the visual equivalent of T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" with references to a glorious cultural past that now simply exists in fragments. When he is charged with being a misogynist, that character, Jeb Gambardella, corrects the accusation: No, I am a misanthropist. And while he wears this name as a badge of honor to go along with his impeccably tailored suits, fortunately the film does not agree with him. Within this engrossing spectacle, some of the most dramatic faces this side of Fellini scowl and grin. You have to love them.
Beginning with an epigraph from Celine's Journey to the End of Night, and a montage of snapshot Rome, the film's journey is to penetrate the postcard perfection of this place with literary irony and large questions: what do you like most in life? Jeb, brutally honest, tells it like it is, especially when he lays himself open as target. "I feel old," he confesses to a stripper, who replies, "You're no spring chicken."
In 2000 when his movie Malena was all the rage, the Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore told me that all that anyone wants to see in Italian movies is romantic drama set in the war years. In daring to depict the Europe of now, The Great Beauty's director Paolo Sorrentino garners accolades: The Great Beauty is Italy's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and was just nominated for European Film Awards in all the major categories. Celebrating the film's theatrical opening and award nominations at a special dinner at Armani/ Ristorante this week, filmmakers praised Sorrentino and chatted about their projects: Paul Schrader is preparing to direct a film to star Nick Cage; Sonia Nassery Cole will make a film in Afghanistan, and Israel Horovitz is just back from Europe where he directed the film version of one of his plays, My Old Lady, starring Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kristin Scott Thomas. William Becker, chairman of Janus Films, attended the dinner as well. Janus/ Criterion Collection is The Great Beauty's American distributor.
Admiring his central actor, Toni Servillo, I asked Paolo Sorrentino how he directed him in the key brilliance of being both text and subtext simultaneously. Having worked with Servillo before, Sorrentino said, I just tell him, go.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.