ONCE in awhile, along comes a movie that not only has something interesting to say, but also says much about itself while doing so. The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) is director Paolo Sorrentino's love letter to Rome, a city that - like an ageing beauty who has lived life to the fullest - may be somewhat worn around the edges but remains elegant and dignified, with secrets yet to be discovered.
Sorrentino, who wrote the screenplay with Umberto Contarello, shows various sides to a city that is different things to different people: a famous tourist attraction filled with ancient sites and glorious architecture, a place where religion plays a significant role in daily life, a decadent party venue whose residents gather nightly to celebrate nothing more than simply being alive.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a dedicated devotee of la dolce vita - which by no small coincidence is also the name of the classic 1960 Fellini movie that was an obvious source of inspiration. Jep is also a magazine journalist and self-described king of the high life who published a well-received novel 40 years ago and never wrote another book, spends his time attending parties, throwing soirees on the terrace of his home overlooking the Coliseum and roaming the streets and pathways of the city in search of something that might possibly provide deeper meaning to his life.
Jep readily takes the lead in the type of superficial conversations that bored grown-ups excel at, but he also confronts the death of a long-ago love and is brutally frank with almost everyone he comes into contact with - sinners and saints alike. He's just celebrated his 65th birthday and can't waste time doing things he doesn't want to do - such as looking at pictures taken by the wealthy socialite he's just had sex with.
One person Jep does appear to care for is Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the sultry daughter of a strip-club owner friend. He takes her under his wing while showing her his version of the city, with its secret corners and its "whirlpool of the high life". He can't help but make wry, witty observations about life - and death - in the city he loves. Funerals, he tells Ramona, are a high-society event where behaviour must be carefully choreographed in order to extract the most social mileage.
There is a profound sense of loss and melancholy as we follow Jep on his personal search for the great beauty. He may never find the answers in this city of a million distractions but for him (and us) the journey - poignant and perceptive - is the thing. "It always ends with death," he says. "But first there is life - underneath the blah, blah, blah."