A relentlessly seductive work of art, La Grande Bellezza enraptures through its sheer cinematic beauty and flow of sometimes astonishing scenes. The film opens in Roman gardens under a blue sky, as a corpulent, sweating man stands at a memorial to the war dead. A choir of women sing a choral work in German.
The action switches to the 65th birthday celebrations for the writer Jep Gambardella, the flamboyant crowd dancing energetically.
Gambardella is played by Toni Servillo (Il Divo), modelled on Marcello Mastroianni's role as Marcello Rubini in Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita. Like that film - on which it so self-consciously based - La Grande Belleza whips up a confection of merriment and decadence, with a bitter dash of corrosive disillusionment.
In a brief monologue delivered to the camera during the aforementioned party, Gambardella addresses the audience, declaring that he was born for sensibility, not sensuality. Thereafter we see him differently, as he weaves his way through Rome’s glittering social scene. Through it all he remains the diffident Tiresian outsider, ultimately unmoved by the ephemeral excitements of the city. He lives, after all, beside a community of nuns in an opulent apartment across the street from the Coliseum.
He has too written but one “novelette”, as one embittered member of his social circle rather taunts him. He is haunted by a girl from his late adolescence, and something begins to stir again in his creative juices. It seems he may very well write again. Sabrina Ferilli is excellent as the forty-something Ramona, who drifts into his life.
As well as directing it, Sorrentino (This Must Be the Place, Il Divo) wrote the screenplay. The score features the music of Poulenc, Bizet, Pärt, Martynov and John Tavener’s extraordinarily moving The Lamb and, ahem, Yolanda Be Cool & DCUP‘s We No Speak Americano.
La Grande Bellezza ends with a sequence that looks like it was filmed from a slow boat meandering down the Tiber. You are left winded by the manner in which this great film lies down and rests after so much gaiety, grief and reflection. A must-see. Released at the IFI and selected cinemas.