In Rome, an ageing Italian writer (Toni Servillo) bitterly recollects his passionate, lost youth.

An artful look at a melancholy life.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Does anybody sell calendars indicating how long it's okay to rest on one's laurels? Paolo Sorrentino's sprawling, consistently gorgeous The Great Beauty accompanies the inner and outer musings of one Jep Gambardella, who came to Rome at age 26 and has just celebrated his 65th birthday with a party no more rowdy or excessive than the revelry in Times Square on New Year's Eve or a small gathering for 500 of Jay 'the great’ Gatsby's closest friends. Jep is played by Sorrentino's cherished key actor Toni Servillo, star of four of the director's six features to date.

Is there a generational approach to superficiality?

Jep published one novel, The Human Apparatus, 40 years ago. The fact that he never managed to write another book is seen as an intriguing aspect of his persona rather than a sure-fire sign that the guy is lazy or a loser.

Were Jep an American author, this lengthy hiatus might be interpreted as "The guy was a one-book wonder. He writes the thing, wins a prize and then gets novelist's block for four decades! What a waste!" But the European stance is closer to "Jep hasn't found the right subject" – which is about as convincing as Liberace not marrying (Á  la Steven Soderbergh's splendid biopic Behind the Candelabra) because he hasn't found the right girl.

Jep does wield his pen. He writes for a magazine whose formidable editor Dadina happens to be a dwarf. In an early passage, Dadina assigns Jep to interview a female performance artist named Talia Concept. Ms. Concept can't bring herself to define even the broadest aspects of her work, let alone the what-makes-you-tick nitty gritty Jep would like to coax out of her. The sequence is a clever riff on how art is in the eye of the beholder and/or a sucker is born every minute.

Talia Concept just may have trouble articulating what her work means to her because her current piece consists of running down a slab of highway in the nude and then ramming her head into an ancient wall as hard as she can. The fact that her pubic hair is dyed red and has a Soviet-style hammer and sickle shaved into it would seem to have required some forethought. (The hair on our heads may fashion itself into interesting configurations when subjected to the elements or while we sleep but landscaped pubic hair needs conscious help.)

Every great European capital boasts a spot or two that, depicted on film, screams 'Hey, look where we are!’ In Paris, it's the apartment with a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower ('Hmmm, that must be Paris!’) or situated so you could almost reach out and touch the Arc de Triomphe. Jep's apartment has a substantial terrace overlooking the Coliseum. While one could never become indifferent to such a view, one could also internalise the notion that nothing one writes or creates is likely to last a fraction as long as that splendid ruin, so why even try?

Jep has a cordial relationship with his own ennui, a condition brought on by a steady diet of superficial encounters by day and especially by night. And yet we feel his intelligence shining through. Jep spends some quality time with a professional stripper but it's a saintly nun's visit to Rome on a self-abnegating pilgrimage that revs up his dormant creativity.

Is there a generational approach to superficiality? Sofia Coppola's fact-inspired The Bling Ring portrays a group of contemporary young people whose bottomless appetite for designer garb and accessories takes vapidity to new heights. Their idea of 'art’ is a brand-name handbag that some arbiter of taste has decreed to be the must-have accessory that will reign in that slot until another must-have accessory takes its place, possibly in the next few nanoseconds. Jep knows that a well-turned phrase or an ancient stone is more valuable than a Chanel handbag or a Rolex watch, but he also knows you won't find any well-turned phrases to steal if you burglarise Paris Hilton's house.

Jep to Woman: "What job do you do?"
Woman: "I'm rich."
Jep: "Great job."

In Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, a droll if overlong vampire tale, vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) who lives in Detroit, takes his vampire wife Eve (Tilda), who lives in Tangier, on a tour by night (of course) of some sights in the Motor City. One of them is what's left of the Michigan Theater, a once-resplendent movie palace that seated 4,000 movie-goers in the reflected gleam of chandeliers and dream-weaving ornamentation. "Now it's a car park" says Adam. Tourism aside, it's not that much of a stretch to picture a pragmatic American official saying "The Coliseum is old and it's falling apart. It'd make a great parking lot and that's something Rome could really use."

Bemused Jep has an upstairs neighbour who is exquisitely groomed and never responds to Jep's overtures in the building's elevator or when both men come out to their balconies to admire the view. When Jep learns who his enigmatic neighbour is – or at least what he does, sort of – we wonder why we didn't guess sooner.

Jep can't help having a writer's sensibility. So, when he walks home along near-vacant streets shortly after sunrise after yet another night of, well, nightlife, he notices things. The camera does the official 'noticing’ – and we, too, are taken with the movements of a bird or the colour of the sky. We feel as if our powers of observation are heightened. And this happens even though we haven't really been up all night assaulted by bad thumping music or gyrating women whose entire wardrobes might fit into a small Christmas stocking.

As in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, which this film honours without copying or borrowing, spend enough time in the company of other people whose minds and hearts may as well boast a motel-style vacancy sign, it's hard to remember that maybe going out every night isn't all that normal.

While most of us wouldn't mind finding out for ourselves whether a life of wealth and luxury inevitably leads to lassitude and/or silly behaviour, most of us suspect that staying up late dancing and drinking – particularly at age 65 – might interfere with one's productivity. The existential decision is whether to value whatever falls under the heading of 'productivity’ or to go with the flow, just living for this moment and the moment after that.


Watch 'The Great Beauty'

Wednesday 30 December, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies
Friday 1 January, 2:00am on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand

Italy, 2013
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Language: Italian
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso

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