Jep, the contemporary writer hero of Paolo Sorrentino's film, claims that the eternal city's charms and distractions have seduced and ruined him. Instead of striving for literary success, he has made a career of Roman highlife.
The problem with this plot synopsis is that it barely evokes the experience of this sumptuous Fellini-esque concoction. Sorrentino weaves quite a fabric of modern Rome, with parties that extend from Jep's sprawling flat by the Coliseum, to hundreds of Eurotrash partying open-air at his 65th birthday. It's an updated La Dolce Vita -- and with all of the pitfalls of the original.
The film, which has garnered virtually every award in Europe, is endlessly fascinating to watch. Epic, flashy scenes of decadence intersperse with minor grotesqueries, interrupted by sublime images of Renaissance Rome. It's all a tumble, from hedonistic dancers, to a toothless 104-year-old, to children in a convent garden.
As a viewer, I'm puzzled. Are the scenes of Roman hedonism there to titillate and entertain? Or are they really pointing to a soul-sick Europe? Perhaps like Italian opera, we're not really here for the story. We are here for the visuals. They are stunning. Many shots of Rome seem to have been taken at dawn, the light magical, traffic absent.
For me, it's an interesting counterpoint to Philomena (at the Guild, Menlo Park). For all its sumptuousness, The Great Beauty can seem thin on meaning, while Philomena is rich with it.