“The Great Beauty”: They threw outrageous parties, they paid heavenly bills

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“The Great Beauty” opens Friday at Sundance. NR, 2:22, three and a half stars out of four. I’ll be doing a post-show chat in Sundance’s Overflow Bar after the 6:50 p.m. show on Tuesday, Feb. 25.

Ah, to be wealthy, gorgeous and dead inside in Rome! Paolo Sorrentino’s ravishing “The Great Beauty” at first makes the life of the rich and shallow look like a wonderfully decadent carnival, the camera swooping and gliding from outrageous parties to breathtaking architecture.

At the center of it all is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), the self-proclaimed “king of the high life.” Forty years ago, Jep wrote a great first novel, but instead of following it up he became a journalist, plunging deep into the decadent nightlife of Rome. After a short prologue in which a tourist is so taken by Rome’s beauty that he dies of a heart attack, the film opens with Jep’s lavish 65th birthday party, a swirling maelstrom of celebrities, hangers-on, trophy wives, old lechers, freaks and poseurs. Any resemblance to a Fellini film, especially “La Dolce Vita” or “8 1/2,” is entirely intentional.

And then there’s Jep, impeccably dressed, cigarette clamped between his teeth, grinning and dancing along to the throbbing beat. Jep is perfectly content to live this life, rebuffing questions about why he never wrote another book or did more with his life.

But then he finds out his first love has died, and, just like that, the party in his soul starts to die down. “The Great Beauty” follows Jep as he sees Rome with new eyes, starts to see that underneath the noise and the excess there’s fear, there’s longing — and there’s real beauty in life.

He visits old friends, and for the first time sees the sadness in their eyes, as they wonder if they’ve grown too old for Rome, or if Rome has grown too young for them. He reconnects with old lovers, old lust cooled into mutual affection. And he meets a Mother Teresa-like figure, although a spiritual epiphany may be too much for a man whose spent so long in the shallow end of life.

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Sorrentino is an almost unparalleled master of creating beautiful images in films. “Great Beauty” is like an endless buffet of beauty, the camera moving this way and that, the compositions so striking whether he’s lingering on long shots of ancient Rome or close-ups of a rapt party girl. At times, the camera slows down a little, as if wanting to drink in life just a little more deeply. Lightly plotted and running well over two hours, “Beauty” is so fragmented and episodic that it might try the patience of some viewers, like a party that’s gone on too long. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Part of the reason is that Servillo is an enormously charismatic guide through this world, exuding coolness, authority and not a little pathos as he glides through Rome in his elegant cranberry suit. It’s a world away from Servillo and Sorrentino’s last collaboration, “Il Divo,” in which a prosthetics-laden Servillo played a ruthless Itailian prime minister. Here he uses every inch of his charm to play a man that most of the audience would surely envy — and then makes us pity him. “This is my life,” he says at one point. “And it’s nothing.”

But what a beautiful nothing it is.

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