All sorts of images may flash into your mind. You might first think of religion, or of the glamor captured in cinema by Fellini in the sixties. Maybe you think of the history, the architecture, the art.
Whatever it is, you’ll likely find it in La Grande Bellezza, the latest film from Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino. The title translates to The Great Beauty, and it’s true — the film is gorgeous and utterly breathtaking to behold, in part because of the showy cinematography, and in part because Rome itself is so aesthetically beautiful.
But the title is, perhaps, an irony, because The Great Beauty isn’t about beauty at all. There are beautiful things in it, but it’s as much about ugliness and waste and excess, too much of a good thing. The film is drenched in death — the glorious opening scene comes to a halt with the sudden demise of a random Japanese tourist, and several other characters will expire before it’s over. These deaths make little impact. Life just goes on.
These deaths are accompanied by beautiful images and beautiful music. They look great, but it’s all surface. Life is beautiful, La Grande Bellezza proclaims, and death even moreso. Sorrentino depicts ugliness in a very attractive manner, but The Great Beauty constantly reminds us that what we’re seeing is hollow and ultimately unsatisfying. Life is a non-stop party for these fabulous people; it only ends when they die. That seems great at first, but then it goes on… and on… and eventually the parties seem more like punishment. What good is cutting loose when there’s nothing to be cut loose from? When all of life is one big party, how do you take a break? You can live la dolce vita for as long as you like, but there comes a point where it ceases to be so sweet.
And by then, it’ll be too late to do anything about it.The Great Beauty is not easily summed up. It’s not as elusive as many movies that favor style over substance, for it states its themes openly in several bits of dialogue between its intellectual (or faux-intellectual) characters. But there are also many curiosities to be found within. The film takes on a dream-like effect, especially in the outrageous final third. In many ways, The Great Beauty is a love letter to Rome — “love” being a strong word for it, since our protagonist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has mixed feelings on the life he lives there.
Jep is a somewhat successful novelist, but he quit writing after his first book. He claims he was too busy partying to finish another, and that seems to be true — he’s up late every night, drinking and dancing and talking at length with a group of friends who are as superficially successful as he is. He goes to bed when the sun comes up, just when an average man would be waking up to go to work. He has no children, and we get the sense that he hasn’t had a serious relationship in the recent past. He lives the life of a young bachelor, even though he’s now an old man.
The film begins with a busload of Asian tourists taking in the glories of Rome; we, too, are tourists in Sorrentino’s magnificent vision of this ancient city. Then the tourist dies. Sorrentino jumps from there into a long party scene, featuring several delightful minutes of dancing, drinking, and debauchery. Later, there will be talk of how Rome is not what it used to be. Art is dying, religion is dying, these glamorous parties are dying. Rome is dying. There is a lively band of socialites still living it up in the wee hours of morning, but they’re aging fast. There will come a point when none of these people are left, and who will replace them? We don’t meet many characters of a younger generation, and when we do, they don’t wind up too well off. (Witness the strange and heartbreaking sequence of a young girl furiously painting on a huge canvas for an audience of rich observers.) Everything is dying.
Jep, like the film, is preoccupied with aging. He still lives like his younger self, but feels old while doing it. He begins an unlikely romance with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a stripper past her prime, the daughter of an old friend he hasn’t seen in thirty years. She’s younger than Jep but too old to continue taking her clothes off for money, and she has a dark disposition that gradually explains, at least partially, why she’s stuck in a rut. There’s not much hope for Ramona in this decaying Rome.
As in many European films, there is much intellectual discourse on the decline of society, particularly from Jep in these party scenes. The film is episodic, some episodes more surreal than others, though I suppose we are meant to take most of it at face value. We accompany Jep, now a journalist, on an interview with a pretentious young artist; we observe as he learns that his first love has recently passed away; we attend the funeral of another character with Jep and Ramona. Jep is initially glib about this, until he unexpectedly breaks down in real tears once actually confronted with the experience. We attend a dinner Jep hosts for a decrepit old holy woman who is revered by many — but not by Jep. Mostly, we party.The film takes an odd turn when it focuses on religion in the third act, or at least on religious characters. Worship feels a little off-topic for these characters, since there’s very little talk of it before this point. (Though there are a lot of nuns scurrying throughout.) I’ll admit, The Great Beauty almost lost me for a little while — but it makes sense for an older man grappling with his mortality to flirt with religion near the end. The Great Beauty is populated by unforgettable images and energetic editing; along the way, we encounter a drunk midget and a toothless nun. (Okay, actually, the nun does have one tooth.) It’s a dazzling film, and also a rambling and pretentious one, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s fun.
On the one hand, The Great Beauty evokes older Italian cinema — Fellini in particular — but rather than serve as mere pastiche, it’s about the death of what Rome used to be. Out with the old, and in with… well, The Great Beauty doesn’t have anything new to replace them with.
Art, religion, tradition, and tourism will die — and the parties will, too. But the parties will be the last to go, raging on as the rest of the world decays around them.