Berlusconi’s Rome is the fractured and hypocritical maelstrom of a city that Sorrentino paints on film. It is a Rome depicted in both the honeyed hues of the sun-kissed classical statues that abound and the primary coloured, vibrant, cocaine-sniffing, chain-smoking, high-living metropolis that is so stridently at odds with the beauty. This conflicting yet complementary contrast is the film’s thesis.
The satirical tone is set right at the start. The beauty of the city’s architecture, lovingly photographed by Luca Bigazzi, who won an Italian Golden Globe for his efforts, is thrown into comically sharp relief as an elderly Japanese tourist dies of a heart attack whilst drinking in the glory of the city’s seven hills. It is wickedly funny, profoundly pertinent and a prescient foretaste of what is to come.
We are introduced to Jep Gambardella, a suave, sixty-five year old novelist manqué and self-professed misanthrope, who has taken to journalism of the most frivolous kind. He is seemingly content with his affluent and dissipated lifestyle until he receives news from the husband of his first love that she has died. This awakes in him a destructive self-examination that demands that illusion and delusion be stripped away to discover essential truth. Truth about art, truth about life, truth, too, about death. In the hands of the brilliant Tony Servillo, Gambardella, quietly and elegantly reassesses his values as he meanders his way through the city, encountering and abandoning his acquaintances, or being abandoned by them.
The film presents a string of set piece vignettes some of which are very funny, some virtually epic, some profoundly moving. Contemporary art and religion are very much in the firing line. A naked woman performs a piece of live art by throwing herself headfirst into the wall of a stone aqueduct. A shadowy man has a case with keys to all the most beautiful and private collections of art and sculpture in Rome. A magician causes a giraffe to disappear. A Cardinal, next in line for the papacy, is more interested in discussing recipes than offering spiritual guidance.
Nowhere is the tension between the then and the now more poignantly realised than in an episode that sees a young man who has continued his father’s fascination by taking a portrait photograph of himself every day. These he has mounted on a wall of classical proportion and construction. As testimony to the passage of time and the insignificance of humanity it is ineffably sad and yet strangely uplifting at the same time.
Interspersed with these pictorial meditations on life, we are treated to rooftop discussions on the terrace of Gambardella’s luxurious apartment overlooking none other than the Colosseum itself. The pointlessness of struggle, the inevitability of death, the escapism offered by hedonism, the powerlessness of religion are experienced and debated by a coterie of the well-to-do who would just as soon party all through the night as anything else. And they do party very hard indeed.
Ultimately the film offers little hope. A saintly nun aged 104 strives painfully to climb a stone staircase of immeasurable length on her knuckles and knees towards an unattainable fresco of her saviour. Simultaneously, and to use his own words, Gambardella ultimately recognises his life to be little more than “blah, blah, blah”.
With a haunting musical score assembled by Lele Marchintelli, if this elegiac film is not a masterpiece, it is very near to being one.