‘The Great Beauty” recalls two other films set in Rome: “La Dolce Vita” and “Roman Holiday.” The former takes huge bites out of the city’s decadence and debauchery in much the same way as “The Great Beauty.” The latter takes a mere lick at the pleasures proffered by Rome and declares satisfaction. The common thread here is that Rome is magical, addictive and life-altering. Had Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) stuck around for a few more days, the city would perhaps have robbed her of the will to go back.
In “The Great Beauty” (originally released as “La Grande Bellezza”), protagonist Jep Gamberdella (Toni Servillo) describes arriving in Rome at the age of 26 and his desire to become “the king” of the filthy rich, extravagantly gorgeous, rotten-to-the-core side of the city. Forty years go by and at the age of 65, Jep decides the king thing isn’t for him anymore. He has discovered another pleasure and pursuit. He even decides to get up before noon to try out a little something called breakfast.
“The Great Beauty” bagged an Oscar for best foreign picture earlier this year. Apparently, there was a rumor that Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu)” should have been in that category (before losing out to Disney’s “Frozen” in the animated features section). It’s amusing to think of “Wind” competing against “Great Beauty” — the two stories are so radically different they may as well be from different galaxies. While the Studio Ghibli film promotes dedication, work ethics and the search for the meaning of life, “Great Beauty” is a glorious, but ultimately meaningless, celebration of the senses. It takes the approach that life is there to be savored, and then evaluated, moment by gemlike moment. Work never comes into it (one of the fevered criticisms thrown against “La Dolce Vita” back in the 1960s), and it’s clear from Jep’s conversations that labor very rarely even crosses his mind. He wrote one best-selling novel years ago and has since been contemplating what to write next (at least when he’s not partying). Really, why should he work when he can seduce yet another bella senorina and sip champagne from the bottle?
But now, Jep is refashioning himself into a connaisseur of “real beauty.” This beauty — from sunrises and seagulls ascending in the sky to his own sweet memories of a woman he loved in his youth — laps at the banks of his consciousness. Life is good for Jep, but then you get the feeling that this man never had it otherwise. Even a sense of regret at what might have been turns into a moment of brief deliciousness in his mind. He chews on it pensively, like a piece of expensive bittersweet chocolate.
The truth, though, is that Jep is jaded and even bored. And in his company, we experience a kind of numbing fatigue, like stepping out into the dawn after too many drinks and stale conversation. Unlike the king, though, we have to get to work in the morning, a fact that, perhaps, Jep secretly envies.