The Great Beauty
begins with a cannonball, followed closely by a heart attack, and concludes with a 104-year-old toothless nun crawling on her knees up the steps of a church. Paolo Sorrentino’s luxuriously sprawling film is both enchanted and repulsed by the decadence it depicts, a tension that makes for one of the richest cinematic experiences of the year. At the center is Jep Gambardella (a wondrous Toni Servillo), a 65-year-old hedonist who wrote an acclaimed novel as a young man and now spends his days (and nights) living large in Rome. Toward the beginning of the film, he learns that his first love has died, which jolts him down a path of grief, nostalgia and, because he’s at times a pompous cad, pride. That journey is a sensuous feast, scored by haunting choral music and techno mariachi, and marked by appearances by washed-up socialites, a blue-haired dwarf, vanishing giraffes and dreadful performance artists, including a woman who runs naked and blindfolded into a stone wall. The loosely connected vignettes can meander, but taken together they compose a fascinating portrait of Berlusconi’s Italy, one that is too consumed by orgiastic terrace parties and neverending conga lines to realize how stagnant it’s become.
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