Toni Servillo: The Italian Idol

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty

To his moviegoing compatriots, he is the sexiest star since Sophia Loren—despite a soaring forehead, a bald patch, and a face drawn with the crevices of knowledge. He has won more than a dozen best-actor awards at Italian film festivals over the years, and Italian Vogue calls him the "most versatile Italian actor in the history of Italian cinema."

Now, with the release of La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) the rest of the world will get a chance to see for themselves. And even if not everyone will agree with the Italians' sometimes overwrought and exalted pronouncements, it is clear that the 54-year-old actor, Toni Servillo, is on the verge of making it beyond his country's borders, as the press previews of his new film suggest. (The British newspaper The Guardian calls him "a singular star," recently writing that "the key to this pre-eminent Italian actor of the age has to be his hypnotic unknowability.")

In Italy, Servillo is evidently already a legend, having portrayed some larger-than-life characters such as the flamboyant and long-lasting politician Giulio Andreotti (who served as prime minister several times) in the movie Il Divo and the mob boss Franco in the unblinkingly tough and award-winning semidocumentary Gomorrah, which detailed the real sordid nature of the Italian mafia. (Both films came out in 2008.) In La Grande Bellezza, Servillo plays a hedonistic celebrity journalist addled with love problems in a spot-on portrait of hack life in Rome. The film makes its North American debut at the Toronto Film Festival on September 5.

Servillo, who was born in Naples in 1959, has forgone Rome and Hollywood to live in the gritty Neapolitan suburb of Caserta, where he runs a theater company called Teatri Uniti, which, over the years, has served as an incubator for some of the best actors on the national stage. This June Servillo brought 30 actors to Chicago for five performances of Eduardo De Filippo's Inner Voices after the director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater saw the play in Rome. The performance sold out after the first night based on positive reviews.

The Chicago Sun-Times called Servillo a "sublime leading actor and director," and the Chicago Tribune described him as an "extraordinary actor" and a "cross between Beckett, Chaplin, and Peter Sellers." Servillo is said to be the quintessential Neapolitan. And some even believe that this geography accounts for his charm and theatrical talents. "He is Neapolitan, which has everything to do with his way of acting," Silvio Marchetti, head of the Italian Culture Institute of Chicago, said recently. "Neapolitans are extremely emphatic, whereas the typical northern attitude is more about not showing or sharing feelings. Servillo lives his characters."

Whether American audiences will love him as much as the Italians do is another matter. He worries geography might be a hurdle. He recently told the Chicago Tribune that he is probably "too Italian" for international audiences. But where you come from and where you're going matter in different ways, he told the paper in a rare interview last month. "Acting," he said, "is a path of knowledge and of self-knowledge. Sometimes you get lost on the path. And then you find yourself again."