' ' Cinema Romantico: The Great Beauty

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Great Beauty

An early shot finds our protagonist, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, as dapper as his wardrobe, never hot around the collar), splayed in a hammock atop the roof of his immaculate Rome-set apartment, rocking gently, the camera initially zeroed in on the cocktail glass loosely held in his hand, the ice clinking in a dulcet tone that suggests not a hard day’s work done but a leisurely day passed. Eventually he abandons the hammock for a stroll across his rooftop balcony, and as he does, the camera glides with him to reveal his architectural next-door neighbor – that is, The Colosseum, glowing in all its grandeur in the late afternoon sun.

The woman sitting next to me in the theater was ravished by this, remarking on it to her companion, drawing her right arm up and over the image of The Colosseum on screen, as if wanting to gather it up and abscond with it. Naturally this prevented her from witnessing Jep’s reaction to the identical image, which was that he had no reaction, because why would he when it lays at his feet every day? I don’t mean to criticize my fellow moviegoer, but to cite her as an example in relation to a line Jep says much later in the film – that the only decent people left in Rome are the tourists. Which is to say, only the tourists remain capable of breathing in The Eternal City for all it's worth.

“The Great Beauty”, directed by Paolo Sorrentino and photographed by Luca Bigazzi, is a visual indulgence, gorging on the scenery and a seemingly endless array of shimmering pools, ogling bodies and reveling fairly unrepentantly in lascivious landscapes. Movies, all movies, transform us into sightseers, and “The Great Beauty” seems more straight-forward in this admission, serving up its immaculate frames in lieu of glossy postcards. But so too does it transform Jep into a sightseer, seemingly passing through the city he has inhabited for more than forty years as if he does not know it at all.

Routinely the camera contemplates Jep contemplating as he strolls, hands always situated behind his back, evoking a breeziness with his opulent surroundings. He stops and considers often, yet we are left to wonder what he might be taking away. Not for nothing is his most vivid visual allowance his own bedroom ceiling, which he often lays down to stare at, its white tile metamorphosing in his mind into a sparkling sea.

Perhaps this is why Jep is an author. Well, he used to be, having published his one and only novel, considered significant by many, though not by him, many decades prior. He is now an apparently uninvolved magazine writer, bored with what passes for modern-day art, and as the film opens he is celebrating his 65th birthday at a nightclub that will no doubt conjure memories of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Italian film history looms large here (and even gets explicitly referenced in a throwaway), and Jep’s own history looms large too. A man approaches to advise that a girl Jep once loved, but who left Jep, has passed. The man, however, her husband, learns via diary that she never stopped loving Jep.

Clearly this is paving the way for a theme of regret, and that becomes intertwined with semantics on rebirth (the film's prologue is set on Rome’s Janiculum Hill, a gathering place for the cult of the god of beginnings and transformations, Janus), continual potshots at the pretentiousness of the artist (as if only they are capable of excavating life's ruins) and the vapidity of this hedonistic Italian lifestyle. As in, this kind of a life is what leads to regret. But, is regret born of behavior, or born of the city itself? Characters in “The Great Beauty” are determined to cast the blame on Rome. Jep, however, never quite goes that far, and Servillo’s coyness – is this all a put-on or genuine introspection (underscored by the final lines) – goes a long way in suspecting the character might just blame himself.

The film ultimately turns on a Mother Theresa-esque nun, a woman with whom Jep hopes to do an interview, functioning as a literal embodiment of what may or may not be Jep’s Come-to-Jesus Moment. Like with all else in the film, it is handled with as much absurdity as grace, though ultimately the most crucial side character is not the nun, but Jep’s spooky next-door neighbor. I will not reveal who he is and what he turns out to be, and rather observe his eventual reveal works as a weird underlining of the film’s questioning (and film as an entity’s questioning) of what we see.

There is a ribald Rome here, to be sure, one that might make less self-aware men ready to write off their failings on account of their surroundings. The camera captures that Rome, but the camera cuts through to capture the other Rome too, the Rome that the tourists see and the locals dismiss in their insatiable need for more, more, more. Is Rome The Great Beauty, or is it something else?

Jep admits he has searched his whole life for The Great Beauty. A more conventional and less stuffed narrative might have been content to argue that Jep's long lost love was The Great Beauty, but Sorrentino is clearly striving for something much more lyrically abstract. Perhaps The Great Beauty is an illusion. Perhaps the Rome the tourists see is an illusion too. Perhaps Jep took the blue pill and washed it down with Campari.

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