The Great Beauty, Italy's official entry to the 2014 Academy Awards, begins with the blast of the noontime cannon on Janiculum Hill and follows a Japanese tourist who separates himself from his companions, lifts his camera , takes a picture, and falls over dead. Then the scene shifts to a gigantic terrace overlooking the Colosseum. It is the fabulous perch of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a jaded socialite and journalist who glides through Rome as a privileged witness to "the whirlpool of the high life." He attends one party after another where aged men and women try to dance the night away.
But the emptiness of the hedonistic life persists. So Jep and his decadent acquaintances seek one thrill after another. They watch a performance artist run into a brick wall creating a cut in her head. They shiver along with a very nervous woman when a knife thrower sends whirling blades through the air at her. They sit quietly and try to figure out what is going on when an angry little girl hurls cans of paint at a canvas, all the while grunting and screaming in anger. One member of the audience says "That girl was crying." Jep replies: "Nonsense, she earns millions."
In his operatic film Il Divo, director Paolo Sorrentino put before our eyes the sad state of affairs in Italian politics where one scandal follows another. It focused on the wheeling and dealing of the seven-time Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. This ambitious film goes even further in its depiction of moral decline. Watching the antics of a struggling playwright (Carlo Verdone), the malaise of a middle-age stripper (Sabrina Ferilli) who becomes Jep's companion, a cardinal (Roberto Herlitzka) who can wax poetic about food but who is unable to respond to serious questions about spirituality; we are reminded of the vacuous characters in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Sorrentino's sense-luscious film showcases the exotic beauty of the Eternal City in countless scenes of historical statues, palaces, fountains, and aqueducts.
Although he has earned respect for his interviews, Jep wants to write another novel; his first, The Human Apparatus, was acclaimed by many. Now he's blocked and regrets that he has not fulfilled his potential. Memories of his youth are brought back when the husband of his first love brings news of her demise and the fact that she loved him above all others. Since her, Jep has not gotten excited about sex or romantic entanglements.
The Great Beauty, despite its laments for the superficial pursuits of Italian high society and the tawdriness of tourists, ends on a high note. Jep encounters a Mother Teresa-like 104-year-old woman who has served the poor in Africa and is rumored to be a likely candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church. Her interest in his first novel and her communion with a flock of flamingos on his terrace proves to be a life-transforming surprise for Jep. There are many roads to beauty presented in this unusual film but this miraculous depiction of Divine grace is the most moving one of all!
Special features on the Blu-Ray/DVD include new 2K digital film transfer, approved by director Paolo Sorrentino, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray; new conversation between Sorrentino and Italian cultural critic Antonio Monda; new interview with actor Toni Servillo; new interview with screenwriter Umberto Contarello; deleted scenes; new English subtitle translation; PLUS: a booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.