If you know Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," you'll be unable to watch "The Great Beauty" without thinking about it. This gorgeous Italian movie, like its predecessor, balances pungent satire and a more melancholy mood in portraying the dissolute world of the upper crust in contemporary Rome.
It's the story of Jep Gambardella (an outstanding Toni Servillo, of 2008's "Il Divo"), who wrote a masterpiece of a novel in his youth but has been unable to repeat the success.
He has become a journalist and bon vivant, living in an incredible apartment overlooking the Colosseum. He's popular in his circle but jaded, and, having just turned 65, is starting to look at the big picture.
When news arrives of an old girlfriend's death, he continues to make the rounds of high-end gatherings and nightspots in the Eternal City, but in a "what's it all mean" frame of mind. He informs us that once he wanted to be the king of Rome's extravagant night world.
But he no longer wholly buys into his cynicism, if he ever did. Delivering acerbic witticisms at over-the-top parties isn't much of a purpose in life.
The plot is just a running account of what Jep sees and says during his often surreal urban wanderings. In one of the film's most unsettling scenes, we see a young girl unhappily creating avant-garde paintings in front of an audience.
Then there's Jep's editor, an attractive blue-haired dwarf who offers him good advice. He also encounters a saintly nun, age 103, who dines only on roots.
But it would be wrong to give away too many of the film's numerous surprises. Suffice it to say that, while we goggle at the often hallucinatory splendors of Rome's nighttime world, we soon realize that Jep is no longer as amused as he once was by parties bordering on orgies. Will he ever see beyond his own boredom and despair?
Director Paolo Sorrentino ("Il Divo," "This Must Be the Place") is highly skilled at mocking both the decadence and pretensions of Jep's playmates, although he perhaps offers one too many scenes of wild dancing. He clearly knows how to make a visually ravishing film, but also one with substance, evoking complex emotions and tones.
It's an extraordinary portrait of a great city where the crushing weight of history seems to bring out the worst in many. But the film also has a bit of sympathy for its world-weary sybarites, and a goodly amount for Jep, a preening dandy who, by the film's end, has glimpsed something essential.
Opens today at the Regent Square Theater. In Italian with English subtitles. No MPAA rating but contains adult themes and material.