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.