Toni Servillo stars in 'The Great Beauty,' which mixes images both serene and startling. (Gianni Fiorito)
At one point in “The Great Beauty,” a man walks into a square in Rome and a giraffe is standing dead center in the middle of it.
The image is stunning, obviously, and lovely in its absurdity. Some European directors might leave it at that. Happily, Paolo Sorrentino is not one of them. “The Great Beauty” is overstuffed with amazing, initially incongruous images and scenes, and it certainly has its share of dreams and memories, but Sorrentino makes sure a thread of logic holds things together.
That thread follows Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who is turning 65 as the film opens with his raucous birthday party. A blaring Mariachi band wanders through a huge crowd that is pulsating to electronic dance music. There’s a female dwarf in a bright blue dress, a tattooed woman wearing bird feathers and an obese fallen TV star bursting out of a cake.
Yes, Jep knows how to party — it’s what he’s done with his life. After a promising start as a novelist, he settled for life as a magazine writer (magazine writers must be paid quite well in Italy) and as a fixture in Rome’s decadent night life and literary salons. Sure he’s disappointed in himself — who isn’t? — but he’s had a fun run.
And he’s still having fun, even after hearing that his first love has passed away, a young woman who inexplicably left him for a dull fellow she never really loved. Jep has her on his mind as he winds his way through the film — hers is the great beauty he has ached for ever since.
Along the way, he shreds the pretenses of a longtime literary acquaintance (Galatea Ranzi) at a cocktail party only to say (in all sincerity) the thought that they may make love someday gives him hope at a different party. He meets a future pope obsessed with recipes and little else. He hosts a dinner for a 104-year-old nun (Giusi Merli) considered a saint.
And he falls in love with a 40-something stripper (the incredibly lush Sabrina Ferilli), inviting her into his world of culture and showing her hidden artistic treasures in Rome’s wealthiest corners.
Throughout the film, Sorrentino delivers gorgeous images, crazy images, startling and sexy and serene images; it’s a visual bath of sorts — the great beauty is everywhere, Jep (and we) just have to be open to it. There is tragedy, yes, and life is something of an act at which we fail. But the great beauty is there. And this film is certainly part of it.
'The Great Beauty'
Running time: 142 minutes
Playing at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit
Institute of Arts