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No film since "La Dolce Vita" has so captured the melancholy party theory of Roman life
on December 27, 2013
"The Great Beauty" (Italian: La Grande Bellezza), directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is a lovely film, simultaneously self aware and unashamed in channeling several of the themes, stylistic flourishes and concerns previously identified with classic Italian films like "La Dolce Vita", "8 1/2", "L'Avventura" and so forth. It makes superb use of Rome in all its classical beauty as a location for mournful contemplations on lost youth, present life, pending mortality and the tribal malaise and pretenses of Rome's creative elite, all presented with lots of style and sizzle. How much a viewer finds the film to ultimately be either haunting and depressing or stimulating and entertaining may depend on how close to home the life concerns and reflections of the protagonist are to the viewer's own life.
The "La Dolce Vita" like story of dissipated Roman creative posers and party animals confronting middle age, lost promise, failure and mortality, as though Marcello Mastroianni had never managed to transcend the final scenes of "La Dolce Vita", and had just grown old where we last saw him, allows for some wicked insights into and comments on Roman artistic life and an Italian film genre that is best summarized as "We are surrounded by so much beauty and greatness from the past, but we can only create empty beauty because we lack greatness, and can never achieve it again, and are tormented by the language and symbols of Catholicism, and are twisted into knots and self negation by intellectualizing about modernity. What else can we do but party? And, of course, we are melancholy at the emptiness of it all...".
If the "The Great Beauty" has an over all insight, which is suggested by the introductory quote from Céline's "Journey to the End of the Night", it is that the characters have all, in ways big and small, succumbed to the delusion that they each can, through art and the intellectualized control of discourse and expression, control and master the illusion of life. Each character has been either broken, humbled or sobered by the effort, and has found that a great deal of what they could have enjoyed about the illusion has been lost to them in an effort to dominate it.
The protagonist, Jep Gambardella, a once promising author with only one book of intellectualized social commentary to his credit, published very early in his career, after which he has settled into a long languorous slide to middle age as a "journalist" reporter on the arts in Rome, is sympathetic in that he has begun to grasp this underlying truth, and is working to reconcile himself to it. Many other characters in the film seem to have settled into the sort of dour connoisseurship and bored hostility usually associated with vendors in a Parisian flea market.
The film abounds in vignettes and passing comments, many quite touching and some of them quite depressing, involving different characters who come and go from scene to scene, all pointing to the fury of now being held prisoner by the long shadow of the past. There is, for example, the elderly fallen aristocratic couple, living in the basement of their family's old palazzo, which is open to tourists to earn income, who rent themselves out as aristocratic dinner guests. On returning late at night from a party, where Jep had hired them to impersonate old rivals of their family, who were unavailable but whom Jep had wished to attend a dinner party at his apartment being held for a Mother Teresa like saint that Jep wishes to interview, the wife of the elderly couple slips into the old palazzo and inserts some coins into an audio guide and, sobbing, listens to an audio explanation of the palazzo and an idealized account of her life there as a child. And no Italian film aspiring to social comment would be complete without scenes that highlight the vanity and fallibility of the Catholic establishment.
Perhaps the most telling, and memorable, at least for this viewer, line in "The Great Beauty" is spoken by Jep's hapless friend Romano, a seemingly talentless creative striver continuously rejected by Roman elites and audiences and continuously working to launch a fresh assault on the mountaintop with a new project. Romano, who angrily criticizes the basis of his artistic rejection, while masochistically humiliating himself in pursuit of a beautiful woman who can barely stand speaking to him, finally wins some approval by giving a performance piece where he grovels to the audience that he is "ordinary". Momentarily heartened by the applause he receives, even though the woman he craves walks out of the show as soon as he has finished, he soon decides to quit Rome altogether.
He tells Jep of his brief success with the audience. Jep replies, with some genuine empathy for his friend, that it's wonderful that he received a positive response. But Romano tells Jep that he is leaving Rome, and returning to his small hometown, from whence he had come to Rome as a young man. "Rome has disappointed me", he tells Jep.
This is really the insight moment for the film. The inability of someone, and that someone is almost everyone, to question their own consciousness, to in any way question or blame their own essential nature for their life, or to question their choice of an environment for themselves, much like the choice of a lover, that is toxic for them. Each person thinks they can transcend their environment and normalize their own consciousness through verbal definitions and success. Failing to do so, they blame the environment, or their own lack of effort, rather than their own consciousness and its need, like a drug addict, for that environment, no matter how toxic it may be to and devastating for them personally. Many a failed love affair travels the same path.
Jep briefly considers that he too may have exhausted his life in Rome, and that he might return to where he came from, or go on to some where else. But, in the end, Jep's consciousness is Rome. He cannot leave what he is, or go back to something he was not. Jep has become his environment, no matter how empty its charms and denizens may have become for him. If he is disappointed in Rome, it is because he is disappointed in himself. The two are inseparable. He is haunted by "the great beauty" of a moment in youth when all seemed possible, if only through a then youthful ignorance of life and himself. He has no where to go now but onwards, an observer of his own essential nature.
The film's Fellini like cinematic touches, which run on a steroids throughout, are in many ways busy work, lacking the organic relationship to the characters and film making that the same devices had in so many Fellini films. The film could have been made with much less overt style and have lost none of its essential nature nor any of its story impact. That is in a way a tribute to the strength of its conception and to the talents involved.
All that said, the film is gorgeous. Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella is superb, the role of a lifetime for the actor, and all the casting and production are first rate. No other film since Fellini's has so captured the look, feel and vibe of Rome as both an open air museum and a grand movie set for the personal dramas and struggles of the creatively obsessed, jaded, cynical, malevolent and determined. The film plays like a wry dirge for an over ripe funeral procession. But it is a beautiful and, ultimately thoughtful reflection on the energy and openness of youth fading into a fragile but wise middle age. The place is intensely Rome The style is uniquely Italian, But the story is human and universal. RECOMMENDED.