The saying goes that good things come in small packages, but Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino's masterful The Great Beauty shows that large and lavish sometimes work out well too. One of five movies nominated for this year's Foreign Language Film Oscar (and recent winner of a Golden Globe in that category), The Great Beauty mounts a sprawling and ambitious 142-minute meditation on life in the modern age by placing the glorious city of Rome at its center. To describe the film as lush doesn't do it justice: the stunning architecture, the ancient art, the extraordinary faces both beautiful and plain all add up to full immersion in the teeming life and culture of the city. In Sorrentino's vision, all this indescribable beauty contrasts with the decadent and superficial lives of Rome's cultural elite. There's plenty of satire here, but The Great Beauty is no cautionary tale about needless self-indulgence. Sorrentino is more interested in his characters' awkward and halting search for a spiritual grace that somehow might suit the majesty of their physical surroundings.
A delicate balance is required to keep the film from dissolving into a mere expression of cultural malaise. Making that possible is the presence of fictional arts journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who serves as tour guide on our journey into the battered soul of Rome. Jep also is the king of the city's social scene, the man who knows everyone and throws the most extravagant A-list parties. His reputation is that of a great artist, but he wrote only a single award-winning novel 40 years ago and has neglected his talent ever since. The occasion of his 65th birthday coincides with the death of the girl he loved in his youth, leading to a period of personal reflection. We follow as he wanders the streets, enjoying the city's magic as he encounters old friends and lovers. Jep is acutely aware of how frivolous their lives and his own have become, but his lack of ego and disinterest in judging others make his entire journey palatable and lend the film an emotional richness. The soundtrack mirrors both the movie's themes and its visual sensibility by mixing sacred music with crass Italian pop.
With its considerable length and lack of a conventional storyline, The Great Beauty may be slow going for those not taken in by the sights and sounds of Rome or the existential quandaries that drive the film. Others may take exception to the unexplained affluence of virtually all the film's characters — no matter how successful, journalists can seldom afford the kind of apartment Jep enjoys, with its grand terrace overlooking the ruins of the Coliseum. Sorrentino was clearly inspired by the films of Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita in particular), but there's something special going on here, a sense that there are no limits to what can be imagined and realized on screen. On its dazzling surface alone, The Great Beauty is all about the power of film. It won't remind you of anything currently coming out of Hollywood or the American indie scene. But they don't call them foreign films for nothing.