The coolest actor on the planet? At the moment my favorite — cool, warm, whatever temperature — is Toni Servillo, the Italian maestro of character actors. He has a way of conveying a lifetime of insight, irony, natural authority and blithe amusement behind every line reading.
Servillo's latest role is that of an impeccably dressed, impossibly jaded journalist, Rome's answer to Tom Wolfe, in the new film "La Grande Bellezza," translated as "The Great Beauty." It's a beauty, all right. It's more a style show than a deep philosophical treatise, but with surfaces this sleek and faces this interesting, I'll take style over substance any day.
Director and co-writer Paolo Sorrentino, who worked with Servillo on, among others, "Il Divo," has given us a "La Dolce Vita" for a new century, and a different, swirling collection (in widescreen color this time, as opposed to Fellini's black and white) of artists, actors, poseurs, striptease artists, performance artists, the rich, the famous, the sacred, the profane.
Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, whose terrace apartment overlooks the Coliseum. Following a prologue, the film begins with a dance party: Jep has turned 65, and high atop a skyline building, the beats are hot and anybody who's anybody is there, currying favor, listening for witticisms, basking in the powerful journalist's self-regarding glow.
He came to Rome, as he tells us in voice-over, to become "king of the high life." But that wasn't enough; more than parties, he says, he wanted the power to "make them a failure."
Such observations inform every inch of this charismatic bastard's temperament. He lives in the past and is proud of it; nostalgia is all. He wrote a major novel, his first and only, 40 years earlier as a young man. Then, nothing. The newspaper life, full of late nights and contentious interviews, suits him fine.
Then, in this lightly plotted affair, some conflict. Jep learns of the death of his first and possibly only true love, and something inside him shifts. "The Great Beauty" is about that shift. It is a flamboyantly comic externalization of that shift.
The actors are all choice, particularly Giovanna Vignola as his editor, who makes him dinner, lends an ear and cajoles him out of his reveries. "The Great Beauty" treats the audience to an overture of sorts, a tour of Rome from the tourists' point of view. In one brief segment a camera-wielding day-tripper pauses between photographs to take in the view. He collapses and dies. The beauty of the place has killed him. Jep, in his own way, is being tortured to death by the city he loves.
The epilogue completes the notion. We leave Jep and as the end credits roll, Sorrentino closes with an extended shot of the Tiber River at dawn, scored to "The Beatitudes" by Russian composer Vladimir Martynov. It's enough to give you religion, or take it away, or something. But it is something, all right. One Russian critic likened the experience of listening to the music to being "tortured by beauty."
The film, I suppose, is limited by a certain smugness — Jep is the arbiter of taste and class and the exemplar of honesty in this story, and Sorrentino never really tests his protagonist in provocative ways. But Servillo, the actor, suggests so much between what is written, and what we experience visually, that "The Great Beauty" expands in its scope as it goes. A huge hit in Italy, the film deserves to be seen on a large screen wherever possible.
"The Great Beauty" - 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 2:21; in Italian with English subtitles.