Almost exactly a year ago, I watched Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, a film that stars Sean Penn as an aging and bored former rock star. What I saw in this movie was an unimpressive mess: A part of it appeared to be a buddy flick, another part a road movie, another part a thriller concerning a Nazi war criminal hiding in some small American town. None of these parts were any good or came together.
Recently, I watched Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, a movie about an aging but still famous, rich, and admired writer who lives in Rome, is often sad, and yet really knows how to party. This film is coherent: It has a great opening, lots of lushly photographed moments, and a perfect ending. It is hard to believe that the former film was directed by same person as the latter. Something major must have happened in Sorrentino’s life, something that made him wake up from the deep sleep of This Must Be the Place.
The Great Beauty’s Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is Rome’s top socialite. He knows everyone, and everyone wants to be associated with him. The life he leads in the great city is exactly the life he wanted as a young man: “When I came to Rome at age 26, I didn’t want to simply be a socialite—I wanted to become the king of socialites. And I succeeded. I didn’t just want to attend parties. I wanted the power to make them fail,” he says, as he walks through his apartment at dawn after a long night of parties, witty conversations, and sex with a gorgeous and rich middle-aged woman. Jep is 65 and lonely, and often thinks about the past and the first and only novel he wrote. Jep loves walking the streets of Rome at night or as the sun rises—he sleeps during the day. Jep lives next to the Colosseum. Jep never bores his friends or the audience watching this excellent movie.