Forty years ago, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo ) wrote a book that became an instant best-seller and is still read and more or less remembered—by some as a frothy and irrelevant intellectual joke, by others as a life-changing and profound work of literature. What Gambardella himself is reminded of when people mention the book is that he hasn’t written another one since, not for lack of wanting to but more for lack of time, incentive or interest. Like other rich decadent Romans, he’s permanently spinning his wheels in an endless whirl of parties, drunken discussions on the importance of art, late nights and later mornings, a human contact here and there–rarer as time goes by. For time does go by, bringing all these happy desperate people closer to the realization of the total emptiness of their endeavors, their loves, their memories. Under his affable exterior that more often than not hovers close to cynicism, Gambardella, a writer–therefore an observer of life—knows that he will never write another word except in the interviews he does, for a popular magazine, of the more outrageous characters on the Roman scene.
That scene is what gives La Grande Bellezza its texture. Although extreme in the human types he describes, (a dessicated aristocratic couple accepting, for 250 euros a head, to impersonate a better-known one, a Mother Teresa-like would-be saint, prostitutes, strip-teasers, drunks, addicts, frustrated playwrights, a dwarf, nuns young and old, crazy performance artists), director Paolo Sorrentino (“This Must Be the Place”), well-served by a remarkable cast, manages to stay off Fellini land and avoid direct imitation of the maestro. Rather, he gives us a tired-out rich, parasitic society and a Nero-playing-his-fiddle-while-Rome- burns atmosphere. The dialogues are hilarious, laugh-out-loud funny, spot on when Gambardella calls out the bluff of various pretentious players, while the overall impression is one of infinite sadness. The promises of youth have not been kept, love is long gone, budding talent has not flourished. Bodies are kept buff and tanned to hide time’s inevitable outrage, in palaces of which lights, champagne and noise hide the decay.
The film might have benefited from tighter editing and a shorter screening time but as it is, it remains engaging throughout and leaves one exhilarated by the tour-de-force direction and especially by the beauty of Rome , the Eternal City, that will not wane no matter how many weird characters people it and how many crumbling palaces dot the banks of the Tiber.