Unless you’ve seen “Il Divo,” which is about Italy’s seven-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti, or the Italian crime drama “Gomorrah,” both released internationally, you probably haven’t seen their star Toni Servillo in a movie. The spelling of his first name may seem female to Americans, but the 54-year old Servillo is a true Renaissance man, one of Italy’s most illustrious actors and theater and opera directors.
He delivers more meaning with a sigh or a shrug than most movie stars deliver with their entire body. In Italy, he’s a legend. In the United States, he deserves to become one.
Servillo is the first of many reasons to see “The Great Beauty” (“La Grande Bellezza”), an Academy Award nominee this year for best foreign language film. It’s directed by Paolo Sorrentino, who made the aforementioned “Il Divo.” The re-teaming of these two men is a match made in movie heaven. Servillo’s performance is as good as it gets. He delivers so much while saying so little.
After he turns 65, with a joyous, fantastical birthday celebration, a journalist named Jep Gambardella, played by Servillo, is compelled to think about his life, especially after he learns of the death of a former girlfriend, someone he loved. Her passing disturbs him, shaking him to the very core of what he has become, which is a notable and popular resident of Rome, the “king of the high life,” a suave, impeccably-dressed man who for decades has written about the adventures of famous and wealthy and well-connected Romans. He lives in a fabulous apartment with a view of the Colosseum. Food is a joy, dancing is a pleasure.
Gambardella tells the audience that he arrived in Rome from Naples at age 26 and knew exactly how he wanted his life to proceed. “I didn’t want to simply be a socialite,” he says, “I wanted to become the king of socialites. And I succeeded. I didn’t just want to attend parties. I wanted the power to make them fail.” He also wanted to throw his own parties. In his column, he writes about the parties he threw and those he attended.
The goals of this ambitious young man were considered audacious to some, but he had already impressed Romans with the publication, in his twenties, of a novel that brought the bright lights of attention straight to his doorstep. Who was going to reject association with that kind of fame, especially in Berlusconi’s Rome, where celebrity, decadence and the glories of being rich are relished? The economy may be fragmenting, but that problem belongs to the middle-class.
The movie settles into a reverie as Gambardella rethinks his life while walking around Rome, seeking out familiar friends, encountering strangers, taking in familiar sights and being engaged by the impressions of the city around him. His editor nags him about not having written a second novel, believing he has reneged on the promise of his first book. But he seems to be developing a new mindset. Is it possible that he no longer wants to do what he loves to do? Is he finally weary of the limelight? Is he even capable of saying no to hosts and hostesses?
The intoxicating images we see of Rome are proof, if proof were needed, that the whole city is a postcard. Gambardella’s new emotional state creates conflict because of the allure and memory of his city. They are postcards he has little desire to send. He wants to retain his good memories, but he reflects on his past choices. Is he capable of experiencing regret? What do the men and women in his life mean to him? Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s sophisticated screenplay explores what’s important when personal values are upended.
As its title suggests, “The Great Beauty” is a beautiful motion picture, lavish in its sweeping widescreen appreciation of the possibilities of cinema. The imagery may have sprung from Sorrentino’s vision of modern Rome, but the stunning visuals are the work of cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, who shot the movie using 35-millimeter film from Kodak. The colors are rich and warm. No cold digital flatness for this director and photographer.
Sorrrentino has credited director Federico Fellini with influencing his creative life. “The Great Beauty” evokes Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” his legendary chronicle of dissolute Rome, albeit trading color for black and white. But the film also recalls Michelangelo Antonioni’s “La Notte,” in which characters try to assuage their sadness by going to parties and nightclubs. There are even echoes of Fellini’s boisterous “Roma.”
“The Great Beauty” made my list of the best movies of 2013. It’s an exhilarating study of remembrance and should be considered the front-runner for the foreign language Oscar. Servillo’s performance is to be savored in a film that must be seen.
Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.