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Tales of the City

The Great Beauty (2013)

Gianni Fiorito/Pathé Distribution

When Peter Greenaway gazed at Rome back in 1987 for "The Belly of an Architect," he pointed his near-stationary camera towards it from a distance, until the static accumulating from this God's-eye view nearly caused the screen to bow outward at the sides. Paolo Sorrentino does things differently, and "The Great Beauty" hews close to the affluent end of the Eternal City's citizenry and shares their perspectives instead. Mr. Sorrentino is interested in the effect that people have on their city rather than the reverse process, and his Rome is built on networks of vaguely mournful parties and nightclubs and middle-aged hedonists; a seemingly fragile base for so much history to find itself standing on. The resident Lord of Misrule Silvio Berlusconi never actually turns up, but lurks around every corner.

The man who does turn up everywhere is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), socialite and successful author of precisely one book, now wandering from party to party and partner to partner while quietly pondering a lost love and by extension a city that's not what it was. Mr. Servillo, plainly strolling here in the footsteps of Marcello Mastroianni, owns the most beguiling expressions of bemusement currently available anywhere and gets ample opportunity to use them. In "The Great Beauty," Rome's fragile core is orbited by comedy in the same fashion that Los Angeles was in the hands of Steve Martin for "L.A. Story," i.e. for serious purposes. Gambardella attends a Botox party where attendees take a ticket and await their injection amidst gilded splendor; a pair of elderly aristos hire themselves out to any dinner party in need of more gentry; a performance artist with the nifty name of Talia Concept (Anita Kravos) head-butts herself senseless against ancient brickwork and looks a lot like Marina Abramović.

Despite the notes of comedy, and the way that the director's characteristically energized camera swoops and pans and swivels upside-down from time to time, "The Great Beauty" is a restrained caress rather than an interrogation. Not in fact the dying song of a city about to sink back into the soil, the film instead seems confident that Rome has seen all this before and is still here. As well as being beautifully shot and exquisitely scored in a way that makes the city seem solid and robust against the petty bourgeois nipping at its heels, the film also leaves carefully open the question of just how cynical an operator Gambardella really is. No one involved on either side of the camera can bring himself to be properly cross with him, and Mr. Sorrentino's Rome seems benignly resilient to such pettiness. Whatever nostalgic funk Gambardelli's social circle sinks into while furiously conga-lining around his balcony, the Tiber rolls on in the distance. For the final shot the camera joins it, passing peacefully down the river and in the process glimpsing just about the only actual workers seen in the film. The Eternal City endures.


Opens on Sept. 6 in Britain and on Nov. 15 in Manhattan.

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino; written by Mr. Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello; director of photography, Luca Bigazzi; edited by Cristiano Travaglioli; music by Lele Marchitelli; produced by Nicola Giuliano and Francesca Cima; released by Artificial Eye (Britain) and Janus Films (United States). In Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and not rated by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Toni Servillo (Jep Gambardella), Carlo Verdone (Romano), Sabrina Ferilli (Ramona), Carlo Buccirosso (Lello Cava), Iaia Forte (Trumeau), Pamela Villoresi (Viola), Galatea Ranzi (Stefania), Massimo De Francovich (Egidio), Roberto Herlitzka (Cardinal Bellucci) and Isabella Ferrari (Orietta).


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