Italians enjoy many unfair advantages over the rest of us: a rich history, marvelous food, a gentle climate, and a legacy of great art. Italian film makers have used these advantages to good effect, but seldom has the beauty of life, Italian style, been depicted more lavishly than in The Great Beauty, a new film by director Paolo Sorrentino. An academy award-winning spectacle set among the glitterati in modern Rome, The Great Beauty raises uncomfortable questions about the meaning of the good life. Readers of Realize will find this film particularly engaging because the protagonist is an aging writer whose material comfort and social prominence coexist with persistent feelings of loss and sadness. It is a portrait of unsuccessful success, a condition that is not uncommon among older Americans.
After an initial slow, surreal introduction to the cityscape of Rome, the film explodes into a brilliantly filmed bacchanalian birthday party honoring Jep Gambardella, age 65. Jep is a wealthy socialite who published one widely praised novel as a young man and never produced another book. He writes minor pieces for a fashionable publication and lives stylishly on his wealth. Everyone knows and admires him; everyone attends his parties; he reigns serenely over his trendy, wealthy, influential social set. What’s not to like? The paradox that the film reveals is that despite the appearances of his charmed social life Jep is quite isolated from society.
About seven minutes into his fabulous birthday party, the camera slows the action and Jep soliloquizes about the detached condition of the writer. His words convey the dilemma of an artist’s life: one cannot be an acute observer of life while being a fully engaged participant. If you are born with the temperament of a novelist, you will always live apart, even if you never write and publish one sentence. Jep can run away from a literary career, but he can’t hide from his literary sensibility, and he can never fully participate in the society he relentlessly observes. By abandoning serious writing, Jep has decided to live in a spiritual no man’s land between artistic fulfillment and human commitment, achieving neither.
The remainder of the film is largely a collection of encounters with Jep’s colorful acquaintances. As he interacts with his chatty editor, a pensive stripper, a suicidal young man, a combative feminist, or an aged likely saint, Jep’s artistic detachment and world-weariness insulate him from any decisive action or involvement. The most poignant episode is the revelation that one of Jep’s former lovers has died and left a diary from which her husband learns that she has always loved Jep. Even when Jep is walking alone, the weight of unredeemable sorrow is conveyed by the stunning backdrop of Rome’s ancient architecture. To paraphrase Wordsworth, we repeatedly witness emotion recollected in ennui. The film culminates in a flashback of Jep’s rapturous first love tryst, intercut with the ritual ascent of a saintly nun painfully crawling up church stairs. This is nostalgia delivered at a mega dose level.
Much has been made of comparisons between The Great Beauty and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but there are more differences between the films than similarities. Fellini’s protagonist, Marcello, is a young and ambitious journalist on the move and on the make. His painful misjudgments and defeats are attributable to passion and ignorance that the much older and wiser Gambardella can’t claim. The contrast between the two films is one of misfortunes resulting from dynamism versus lassitude.
Some critics have interpreted The Great Beauty as a sweeping criticism of decadence and stagnation in Berlusconi-era Italy, but this neglects the story’s narrow focus on one failed artist. It makes little sense to generalize from one character’s frailty to the fate of a nation. In any case, Italy is far more diverse regionally and culturally than the thin slice of Roman society surrounding Jep Gambardella. Moreover, Jep’s friends may be old, bitter, and burned-out, but they have failed in distinctive ways. The central question posed by the film is the value of Jep’s way of life – Would we choose to live this way?
Jep has attained the superficially attractive status of an affluent aging hipster, but it has come at the expense of denying fundamental aspirations of artistic and personal fulfillment. The great difficulty of Jep’s existence is that he has become a living ghost. Although he is admired by everyone, he is incapable of altering anything, for good or ill. I don’t consider this an enviable outcome. My response to the existential question of the film is that it is better to fail actively than to be comfortably sedated by ennui and nostalgia. To me, Jep’s life is a kind of purgatory that makes obscure striving look quite attractive. A living mediocrity beats a glorious ghost, even in Bella Roma.
Despite its thematic ambiguity, The Great Beauty is a ravishing film. The acting, editing, music and cinematography are brilliantly combined to create a moving depiction of a man comfortably imprisoned by his own character and choices. The closing six- minute credit roll, with the camera showing the view from a boat sailing down the Tiber, accompanied by haunting melodies, is better cinema than the entirety of many current films. Some say that Rome is the great beauty of this film’s title, but I believe it is the art of cinema itself that is at the heart of Sorrentino’s latest work, and it steals the show.
Haig Hovaness has been observing and writing about information technology for three decades. He has worked as an IT professional in Fortune 500companies and was a columnist for Corporate Computing Magazine. As an IT consultant at KPMG Consulting, he worked with media and Internet clients and headed KPMG's Digital Media Institute. Haig was a speaker at Harvard University's first conference on the Internet and Society. His current interests center on emergent cultural phenomena in a hyper-connected world.