A Cannes 2013 favourite, The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino captures the essence of two of Federico Fellini's most magically cynical films, La Dolce Vita and Roma, whose mix of fantasy and baroque imagery once amazed critics and audiences.
Sorrentino's (known for works such as The Family Friend, Il Divo and This Must Be The Place) Italian update on the classic Fellini cynicism is happily no imitation.
Rather, The Great Beauty -- one of the five Oscar nominees in the foreign picture category -- begins where La Dolce Vita ended some 54 years ago. However, the plot set in Rome (the historic city has not changed much in all these years) is darker than Fellini's work - underlining with remarkable verve the moral decay, social chaos and spiritual as well as emotional bankruptcy.
A still from The Great Beauty.
Indulgently a little too long at 142 minutes, Toni Servillo plays the role made legendary by Marcello Mastroianni. Tongue-and-cheek, suave and sophisticated, Servillo's Gambardella is an author and a journalist. Resting on the laurels of his novel, The Human Apparatus, he - jocularly called the King of Socialites - appears to have hung up his boots, setting down to a cushy existence in the Rome of the 1970s.
In one of the most memorable sequences of the movie -- which has references to La Dolce Vita's two most awesome spots, Via Veneto and the Trevi Fountain (where we saw the gorgeous Anita Ekberg taking a dip) - the 65th birthday celebration of Gambardella is shot brilliantly with frenzied dancers and brightly painted faces.
There are other party scenes, some on his own rooftop, which overlooks the grand Roman Colosseum - where in ancient times, men fought men fought animals in bloody bouts.
Disillusionment creeps into the writer's psyche when he meets one woman after another who is willing to be his arm candy, nothing more. The city's moral degeneration hits him hard when meets an old friend, owner of a seedy club whose 42-year-old daughter still strips.
At first, Gambardella is smitten by her, even takes her to some of his parties (much to the ridicule of his friends), but eventually he is disappointed by her shallowness and lack of character.
Much of The Great Beauty relies on sheer wit to keep its audiences engaged: there is one shot of a future Pope who excitedly talks about how to cook a duck - pushing aside questions on spiritualism and religion. Admittedly, a couple of jokes seem to be in bad taste.
However, Sorrentino manages, and splendidly, to depict the obnoxiousness of the times: there is plenty of skin show, beginning with a scene of a naked girl who bangs her head against a magnificent Roman monument!
Much like the way La Dolce Vita ended with the protagonist looking at an innocent little girl on the beach, Gambardella discovers purity when he comes across a child dressed in a white habit - perhaps signifying that all is not lost and that there is still some virtue left in the sea of debauchery.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran saw The Great Beauty at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival)