Fellini's Roma and La Dolce Vita cast a long shadow over this fourth collaboration between Italian director Paolo Sorrentino and actor Toni Servillo, who previously worked together on L'uomo in più, Le conseguenze dell'amore and Il divo. Yet the film creates its own distinctive, kaleidoscopic fantasia of images, music and words - one that is shot through with an aching melancholy and an ethereal beauty that is, like the eternal city itself, both timeless and quintessentially modern. At the heart of this vision is Sorrentino's chameleon-like muse, Servillo, who perfectly captures the fading charm and sardonic misanthropy of Jep Gambardella, a jaded dandy searching for meaning in a world of casual cynicism and superficial hedonism.
On the terrace of his splendid Rome apartment overlooking the Coliseum, Jep stages elaborate, decadent, Gatsby-like parties for his friends, their acquaintances and sundry hangers-on. Sartorially elegant, slyly seductive and compulsively gregarious, Jep nevertheless observes his frenzied social circle with a wry detachment. If prompted, he is not above delivering a withering critique of their shallow vanity and self-deluding pomposity. A creature of the night, he sleeps by day but often roams the city streets in the early hours of the morning, hoping for one of those “haggard, inconstant splashes of beauty” that make life bearable.
Although contemptuous of the squandered artistic promise of his youth, Jep nevertheless harks back nostalgically to his first innocent romance, a pure love which inspired his one and only novella. Nowadays, Jep is more likely to take up with women who merely pique his interest, such as the voluptuous thirtysomething stripper Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), in whose sad company he finds a few moments of quiet peace. More discomfiting is his professional, journalistic encounter with an old, toothless Romanian nun, whose ascetic life of poverty and spiritual simplicity throws his indulgent excesses and arch misanthropy into sharp relief.
Awash with a score that juxtaposes serene classical music (Arvo Pärts setting of Robert Burns' poem My Heart's in the Highlands) with vapid party pop (Bob Sinclair and Raffaella Carrà's Far l'amore), Sorrentino's swoon-inducingly beautiful film evokes the frivolous fun-filled life and inner emptiness of an ageing party-goer confronted with intimations of his own mortality. As his guests form into a conga-line for a dance called El Tren (The Train), the slyly perspicacious Jep remarks: “The trains at our parties are the best in Rome, because they don't go anywhere.”