La dolce vita
Oscar winner from Italy is a love letter to Rome and its characters
The Great Beauty won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. That’s not always a good sign, but in this case, the movie itself dazzles in ways that are rare, even among Oscar winners.
The Oscar remains a good reason for seeing this film during its local big-screen run. And there are a whole bunch of even better reasons—an extraordinary lead performance from Toni Servillo (Il Divo, Gomorrah); the Fellini-esque swirl of faces, places and moods cooked up by director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, This Must Be the Place); its insider’s tour (wry, sprawling, fine-tuned) of 21st century Rome; its latter-day take on “la dolce vita” (and its resonance as a kind of unofficial sequel to the 1960 Fellini film of that name).
Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, an aging writer and socialite specializing in Roman nightlife. He gained early fame with his first and only novel, but has long since settled into life as a kind of highbrow journalist and bon vivant. He has never married (not that he suffers any lack of female companionship), and his friends say he hasn’t left Rome since the day he arrived from the provinces.
While Jep is the central figure in Sorrentino’s Roman phantasmagoria, you can easily make the case that contemporary Rome, with all of its cultural contradictions, is the film’s true subject. The film wanders a while through the city, both before we first meet Jep and again after he has made his exit (the boat ride that the film takes under the closing credits is worth paying attention to in its entirety). Plus, Jep is characterized in part through his very active, very restless love of Rome, and also through the vast, fascinating, and sometimes bewildering array of characters he encounters in his daily and nightly rambles.
All of that operates more or less in concert with the more personal aspects of Jep’s story. We first see him at a rapturously wild party on the occasion of his 65th birthday, and other intimations of mortality—the death of an old lover, the funeral of another friend—soon spur him toward quietly fraught reflections on what his life has come to. In the course of the action, those reflections—amiable enough, but not exactly happy—begin to coincide with the film’s way of viewing all this.
Jep is at the center of things throughout, but a crucial part of the film’s fascination comes from its peculiar combinations of character and incident—“the Saint,” a wizened nun who preaches poverty and seems to have brought a flock of flamingos to Jep’s balcony; a celebrity guru who talks like a mystical monk and dispenses Botox; a conceptual artist who specializes in primal screams and head-butts while naked in ancient settings; a serious young man whose installation, also in an ancient setting, consists entirely of the photos he takes of himself on a daily basis; Ramona, an intelligent but perhaps doomed stripper whom Jep dates for a while; Stefania, a longtime friend who somehow reconciles with Jep even after his devastating critique of her career; etc.