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We begin with a quote from Céline, that sardonically comic writer whose humanity was as laudable as his politics were dubious, advocating travel as a spur to the imagination: “All the rest,” he writes, “is disappointment and fatigue.” Fair warning: we are about to watch the doings of a deluded upper-class circle that never leaves Rome. The film opens with placid, picturesque shots of the city waking up and going about its routines—a tourist’s Eternal City. Later, someone remarks that tourists are the best people in Rome (they travel, after all). In this first sequence, a Japanese tourist happily raises his camera—and promptly drops dead. Soon enough, we are plunged into a disco bacchanal, each of the dancers revolving in a cone of grotesque self-absorbed autoeroticism, enacting with various degrees of success and ridiculousness their notion of sexy-cool. A call goes up for La Colita, a line dance in which the participants keep returning to the same place—emblematic, we will discover, of this privileged crowd’s existence. From the mass scene we pick out a grinning, exuberant, well-tailored man who, we are told, is having his sixty-fifth birthday. “Jep! Jep!” women salute him, sidling up from all sides. He seems essential to their fun, their ringleader, though it is not long before we see him retreating, in a more melancholy, contemplative mood, to his own backstage, a bachelor apartment with a terrace to die for, overlooking the Colosseum.
Sumptuously sensual, crammed with gusto, vitality, spectacle, and invention, The Great Beauty (2013) is also a cautionary tale about the heedless pursuit of pleasure. Director Paolo Sorrentino pulls out all the stops visually, layering one stunning, eye-opening image onto another. But for all this, the film is also, paradoxically, austere and rigorous. How it manages the feat seems partly the result of Sorrentino’s split personality: part showman, entranced with the sheer audacity of flimflam, he is also drawn to characters who are highly disciplined, even monklike, in their isolation (The Consequences of Love, Il divo). With his seven features, he has amassed a body of polished, ambitious work that has made him the leading Italian auteur at international film festivals, and The Great Beauty is his best film so far, a culmination of his inquiries into the clash between man as social animal and introvert.
Sorrentino was born in Naples in 1970. In addition to filmmaking, he is the author of a novel, Hanno tutti ragione, published in English as Everyone’s Right, though a better title might be Everyone Has His Reasons, a line famously associated with The Rules of the Game. Like the maker of that film, Jean Renoir, Sorrentino takes an overall impartial, nonjudgmental, if slightly satirical, attitude toward the aristocrats and high-lifes he depicts, generating suspense as to what price may eventually have to be paid for all this sybaritic activity. No one is accidentally shot in the final reel, though a few deaths occur along the way. A more important consequence is the emptiness that accumulates around all this busy diversion, a hollow pang at the core that is entirely intentional on the part of Sorrentino and his coscreenwriter, Umberto Contarello.
With its marathon parties, fleshy displays, bizarre extremes (one dwarf, one giraffe), and journalist hero whose episodic adventures wandering around an ancient/modern Rome modulate seamlessly from the absurdly humorous to the forlorn, the film has inevitably been compared to La dolce vita. Since Sorrentino himself clearly had this precedent in mind, it may be instructive to ask in what ways The Great Beauty differs from, as well as resembles or extends, La dolce vita. The protagonist of that earlier film, Marcello, looked to be about forty; he was on a quest, whether to find the purpose of his life or to bed more beauties, and he was also still capable of being shocked by an act of senseless violence, such as the intellectual Steiner’s killing his children and himself. Fellini, a child of neorealism for all his via Veneto worldliness, conveyed a fresh, wide-eyed shock at the way the fun-loving Romans in 1960 seemed to be losing their moral bearings in the selfish pursuit of pleasure. The Great Beauty gives us Rome fifty years later, having undergone decades more of political disillusionment, corruption, incompetence, and triviality, and hence shock-proof. Jep Gambardella, the aging protagonist, is a detached, intellectual bon vivant, aware of his limits (he has a bad knee and wears a truss) and no longer particularly looking for answers; rather, he is playing out his string. With lust no longer a factor, he will obligingly have sex if the woman expects it, in the manner of a cavalier servente. When his friend Romano envies him the attentions of the beautiful, rich Orietta, he says, “At my age, a beautiful woman isn’t enough.” Though he resents feeling old, it also gives him the courage to think “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do,” and, as if to demonstrate, he creeps out of Orietta’s bedroom before she can show him on her laptop the nude photos she took of herself.
One of the film’s triumphs is the complexity of its main character, brought to stunning life by the magnificently flexible, ironic, soulful performance of Sorrentino’s favorite actor, Toni Servillo. Jep may live an essentially frivolous existence as a night owl and parasitic chronicler of high society, but he reveals in voice-overs a deeper awareness of his own flaws and those of his set. Surrounded by self-deceiving acquaintances, like the failed actress who says she is considering either writing a Proustian novel or directing a film, or Viola, the anguished mother of a seriously disturbed son who insists he is much better now, Jep alone refuses to fool himself. While others treat him as a still-practicing literary author because of a novel he wrote forty years ago, The Human Apparatus, he knows that he is not working on a second book and suspects he has nothing more to say. He has made himself useful to high society as the likable “extra” single man at dinner parties, his witty, gossipy aphorisms according a dignity to their time-wasting activities.
Lest we see him too hastily as a kind of secular saint, everyone’s friend and confidant, there is a stunningly powerful scene in the middle of the film in which, goaded by Stefania, an attractive Marxist novelist, to defend his lack of service to society, he mutters that she is hiding “a series of untruths.” She demands that he explain what he means, and, dropping his customary diplomatic mask, he calmly takes apart this woman’s claims to distinction in front of her friends, enumerating her seamy past, her opportunistic politics, her lame abilities as a writer, her failure as a wife and mother. Jep’s nastiness is a revelation, suggesting the harsh judgments he may be harboring toward all his companions. Yet this unmasking can also be seen as containing a grain of compassion and even affection for his tribe. “You’re fifty-three, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us,” he ends his diatribe, on a note of fellow feeling. It would seem that, to Jep, the problem is not with having erred: the only unpardonable sin is not to gain wisdom from one’s shallowness, one’s mistakes. An hour further into the film, when he finds himself dancing with this same Stefania, he tells her it seems like an oversight that they have never slept together. The fact that she takes this statement with tolerant amusement and good grace shows either that Jep’s earlier character assassination has been forgiven or that nothing is important enough in this tribal existence to leave a permanent mark.
The name Silvio Berlusconi is never uttered throughout the length of the film, and yet the picture we get of Italian society seems a mirror image reflecting Berlusconi’s tarnishing impact. The filmmaker, whose earlier Il divo (2008) focused on another Italian kingmaker, Giulio Andreotti, and was all about the inside game of Italian politics, has said in interviews that he did not want The Great Beauty to be a commentary on this specific historical moment. Rather, he wanted to show how Rome was both a marvelous playground and a trap promoting inanition. The Eternal City is eternal not just because it has been around for so long but because nothing is allowed to change (at least if you belong to the upper classes), and those who surrender to its magnetic pull can spend the rest of their lives in gilded entropy. This point is made graphically via a few scenes in which the art crowd politely applauds avant-garde acts: first we see a woman performance artist strip naked and butt her head bloody against an aqueduct column, then later we watch a child throw herself and buckets of paint against a canvas, creating in this way the latest “art” sensation. The Eternal City can absorb any experimental provocation without turning a hair, without ceding its indifference.
Boasting that their parties’ train dances are the best in Rome, Jep explains: “Because they don’t go anywhere.” In the face of this inertia, only death has a chance of breaking out of the conga circle. The suicide of Viola’s spoiled, resentful son, who drives his car with eyes closed, occasions a lecture by Jep about the proper etiquette at funerals—one is never supposed to cry, it will upstage the family’s grief. He delivers this mock-pedantic lecture to Ramona, a voluptuous, sad-eyed stripper whom he has befriended. At the funeral itself, though he has shown little feeling for the young man earlier, he weeps as he carries the coffin out of the church—thereby breaking his own rule. He may be weeping at the thought of his own nearing mortality, or at the very pointlessness of their lives; either way, it is a rare departure from his usual stoic front.
Earlier, he learns that the woman who was his first love has just died. The woman’s husband tells him that Jep was the only one she ever loved. The two men make a good-faith effort to bond over their shared grief, and Jep has several flashback moments recalling this pretty teenager on the beach (rather like the angelic Claudia Cardinale character in 8½, whom the hero keeps glimpsing and idealizing); but though the film seems to be offering this first love as a key, a Rosebud, to Jep’s story, what is striking is how little her passing matters to him, finally. Jep sinks back into his usual nocturnal patterns. His narcissistic self, having eroded over time, has given way to an almost purely watchful flaneur’s role. He wonders, like a good Catholic, if religious faith might have answers for him; but the cardinal whom he accosts for spiritual advice runs off for a skunk hunt. This hilarious cardinal wants only to talk about cooking. Meanwhile, like a good Roman, Jep visits exquisite old houses with artistic treasures—Roman statues and painting collections—presided over by wizened, card-playing princesses. The nobility is on its last legs, and the impecunious ones even hire themselves out for parties.
One justification for the length of the film, nearly two and a half hours, is that it wears down expectations of tidy narrative, and coaxes the viewer into a free-falling space of borderline-surreal antinarrative, where a magician makes a giraffe disappear, a mystic quack dispenses Botox for a price, and a 104-year-old saint (a dead ringer for Mother Teresa) arrives and summons migrating flamingos. She alone manifests discipline, crawling up a set of stairs on her hands and knees. But in the end, none of it really matters to Jep, beyond the bittersweet awareness that he just has to keep on living until the end destined for him. Sorrentino specializes in figures trapped in a system of corruption who nevertheless want to retain a sense of honor, or loyalty to an old, half-forgotten code. Perhaps art will do for a code, considers Jep. If, as the magician says, making a giraffe disappear is just a trick, then perhaps he can now resume writing, with the awareness that art itself (maybe even this very film) is just a trick. “Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength,” Céline’s initial quote tells us.
From time to time, Jep is asked, or asks himself, why he has never written another novel, and he comes up with various lines like “Rome makes you waste a lot of time” or “I went out too much at night” or “I was lazy,” or “This is my life, and it’s nothing. Flaubert wanted to write a book about nothing but failed, so how am I supposed to?” When Jep is asked by the saint why he has never written a second novel, this time he answers wistfully, “I was looking for the great beauty.”
Is “the great beauty” of the title quite simply Rome, that courtesan who saps the energy of ambitious provincials with a thousand and one diversions? Or is it some hoped-for aesthetic pattern, some Platonic form underlying our seemingly pointless, soul-wasteful experiences that will finally reveal the transcendental grandeur of life on earth? All along, Jep, when not exasperated by his friends and acquaintances, has been a connoisseur savoring simple moments, usually involving the ongoing life of the city. In the movie’s exquisite concluding title sequence, we are on a boat rolling down the Tiber, and we pass various tourist sites of Rome. No longer seeing Jep or any of the film’s characters, the viewer has become just another spectator, another tourist, like those in the opening scene. The invitation seems to be to forget plot, to just keep looking—and there is much to look at in life, especially if you have a pair of sensitive eyes like Sorrentino’s to guide you. So Fellini yields to Antonioni-esque shots where the actors have left the frame and the camera keeps on unblinkingly, severely, rapturously recording.
It is odd that Sorrentino, who is so accomplished a storyteller, who has such a propulsive, heart-pounding way with montage, with rhythmic combinations of tracks, zooms, pans, close-ups, and crane shots, with the whole bag of cinematic tricks, should also be drawn to the calm emptying out of narrative. But so it is, and The Great Beauty succeeds in continually diverting us while questioning our very need for diversion, and bringing us to a rather contemplative place, a serene site whose eternality has acquired, by the end, much more positive connotations.
Phillip Lopate’s most recent books are Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell. He directs the nonfiction program at Columbia University.