The spirit of Federico Fellini is alive and weird in The Great Beauty

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Starring Toni Servillo. In Italian with English subtitles. Rated 14A

The spirit of Federico Fellini is alive and weird in The Great Beauty, the Oscar-nominated ode to Rome from writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, previously responsible for the popular Il Divo and the poorly received, English-language This Must Be The Place.

Here, Sorentino focuses on the marvelous Toni Servillo, his frequent star, as Jep Gambardella, a dandyish writer still living La Dolce Vita based on early, still-unrealized success. When we meet him, at a spectacularly staged party thrown for his 65th birthday, there’s plenty of female flesh on display. But Jep himself is a bit too jaded to care very much anymore. Sorrentino displays a Satyricon-style attraction to extreme types of places, people, and animals—a giraffe magically appears at one point—although the dwarf glimpsed in the opening chaos turns out to be one of the more rounded characters: Jep’s editor (Giovanna Vignola) for his journalistic sideline, and a trusted confidante.

The belezza of the title may be the ineffable, if highly pungent, presence of Rome itself. (His supermodern apartment has a massive balcony overlooking the Coliseum, and many of the film’s 142, decidedly man-o-centric minutes are spent among the ruins—real, moral, and spiritual—of Berlusconi’s Italy.) But it may be the lost love of his youth, glimpsed in seaside flashbacks, and reflected both in a young convent girl he glimpses on a daily walk and, more cruelly, by the widower who informs that said lost love recently died—while carrying a torch for Jep for more than four decades.

Some of this romantic background might be more mysterious than it needs to be. Our weary antihero’s mild infatuation with a surgically altered stripper (Sabrina Ferilli) delivers a subplot that doesn’t add much to the overall story—long to begin with—and says little about his other relationships. And the jabs at Vatican corruption feel obvious. In the end, though, the movie is unforgettably verdant and Verdian. Supported by many gorgeous bits of (mostly) classical music, it is an inward-seeking carnival packed with miraculous moments, from Michelangelo sculptures lit at night to a fleeting glimpse of Fanny Ardant—as herself and the soul of transcendence—floating by without a word.

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