This arty and frequently magnificent-looking Italian drama is a rich cinematic feast, if you’re prepared to sit back and go with the flow.
There’s no story as such, more a series of vignettes that paint a picture with dabs of colour here and there rather than drawing a continuous line. The film is a portrait of a city as well as a character study; the place is contemporary Rome and the man is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who at the beginning has just turned 65 and is celebrating at a loud, pulsating outdoor birthday bash in his honour.
Jep is a writer whose one and only novel made a splash decades ago; now he’s a journalist and a famous face around the city, with a luxurious apartment whose fabulous terrace overlooks the Colosseum. He’s a ladies’ man and a regular on the Eternal City’s party circuit for the elite, going from one nocturnal decadent event to the next. He’s a world-weary character, smart enough to call out other people’s pseudo-intellectual bullshit, and self-aware enough to recognise the essential emptiness of his lifestyle, but too passive and comfortable to change anything. Jep gets something of a jolt when he’s visited by the husband of his first lover, now deceased, whose diary professes a life-long love for him. In another kind of movie this would probably kickstart a fairly linear story of personal growth and transformation, but the impact of the revelation here is much more elusive.
The main pleasure of the film is its sheer unpredictability; because there’s no obvious storyline to follow you simply never know where the movie is going to take you and what beautiful, evocative, perverse, eccentric imagery is going to fill the screen next. Is it going to be some grotesque performance art involving a hysterical young girl throwing buckets of paint at the wall? Or maybe a bizarre and hilarious visit to a high-class Botox parlour? A night tour through a darkened mansion and its collection of magnificent sculptures? It is also a great snapshot of the city: its art and architecture, its strong sense of being a religious centre, and its collection of wannabes, misfits, tragics and snobs. Jep, for all his flaws and self-absorption, is an arresting character to follow; he may be brutally mocking at times but never truly cold, and there’s a wonderful radiance to Servillo’s performance.