Visually dazzling, Paolo Sorrentino's Golden Globe-winning film is an extravagant odyssey through Rome, ostensibly examining the hedonistic lifestyle of Jep Gambardella, an acclaimed writer. Fittingly, his story begins at a bacchanal celebrating his 65th birthday. With hundreds of revelers romping around him, Jep confronts not only the camera but also his squandered years, devoted to being the sort of charming socialite who not only could throw the best parties but who could ruin other people's parties at will.
Forty years ago, Jep wrote a novel, "The Human Apparatus." He's lived on his literary laurels ever since, scribbling superficial celebrity profiles. "Rome makes you waste a lot of time," he explains. Dwelling in a sumptuous flat that overlooks the Coliseum, he surrounds himself with friends and admirers. Accompanied by a middle-aged stripper, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), he attends fashionable events with the upper bourgeoisie, strolls along the banks of the Tiber, meanders through deserted palazzos and impertinently questions his mysterious upstairs neighbor.
Until, one day, a stranger appears on his doorstep, introducing himself as the widower of the woman who was Jep's first true love. Together, they commiserate about her passing as Jep is overwhelmed by nostalgia, evoking the film's open-
ing quote from Louis-Ferdinand Celine: "Our journey is entire-
ly imaginary. That is its strength."
Using thematic imagery that evokes fond memories of Fellini's "La Dolce Vida" and "Roma," along with Antonioni's "La Notte," it's written by Umberto Contarello and director Paolo Sorrentino, who works once again with his charismatic "Il Divo" star Toni Serbillo, to create a pulsating, satirical portrait of a suave, world-weary journalist searching for his long-lost idealism while experiencing the exquisite sights and sounds of the glorious Eternal City, distinctively depicted by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. Indelibly amusing episodes include a less-than-spiritual visit from Sister Maria (Sonia Gessner), a recipe-obsessed Cardinal (Roberto Herlitzka), and slavish devotion to a Botox technician.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Great Beauty," in Italian with English subtitles, is an elegant, existentially enigmatic 8, a magnificent meditation on opulence and decadence.