According to the star, Toni Servillo, "The 'great beauty' is the metaphor of a country which is constantly losing opportunities, while Rome with its beauty, bares witness to the fact that once upon a time someone took those opportunities." Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, a bon vivant who's swaggered his way through life, through Rome, through women galore. Upon his 65th birthday, however, he becomes pensive and apprehensive.
Gambardella was destined to become a writer, and, indeed, he has written a celebrated novel called The Human Apparatus, which served as the working title for this film. Part of his domestic retinue is the maid, who calls him a rascal, and she's got that right. As he wanders about his beloved city, he observes closely, the nuns running with little children in a parterre, angelic children wrap a nude woman who heads to an aqueduct in performance art before bellowing, "I don't love you" with a mouth the size of Sandra Bernhard's. He interviews the artist, known as Talia Concept, who swears that she lives by vibrations; he has little patience for her posing.
Then he talks to an old friend, a recent widower, who has a secret to reveal, a secret that shifts Jep's inspection to introspection. He continues to drink, to talk about literature and art with his homies, to have sex (she apologizes for its mediocrity) and for letting aphorisms tumble from his smoky mouth, like "It's so sad being good. You risk becoming deft." And, "At my age, beauty isn't enough."
Director Paolo Sorrentino also directed "This Must Be the Place," starring Sean Penn as a transvestite struggling with the aftermath of the Holocaust. Sorrentino wrote the story of "The Great Beauty" and takes his time with the 142-minute film. The dark clubs, the nighttime swimming, the candlelight over the card game -- all these images waltz as words dance with silence throughout. Words of sentiment, as befits the story of a writer, matter behind the silence. "The Great Beauty" ends with this benediction spoken by Gambardella: "Blah Blah Blah," he intones. "I don't deal with what lies behind death. It's just a trick."
"The Great Beauty" is beautiful and evocative. It is also pretentious, arrogant, esoteric, and, in the end, unrewarding.