This year’s Golden Globe and Oscar winning The Great Beauty opens with Stendhal Syndrome: faced with the majesty of Rome, and hearing an ensemble singing David Lang’s “I Lie” on a balustrade above him, a tourist collapses. The Great Beauty has uneven moments, but the film is so gorgeous it seems calculated to produce similar reactions in the audience.
Paolo Sorrentino, co-writer and director, gives us a film about Jep Gambardella, a novelist and journalist whom Rome has bewitched for forty years. The morning after his sixty-fifth birthday, he learns that the love of his youth has died. In the film he reckons with his life and whether there still exists a beauty strong enough to cure him of nostalgia, redeem him, and teach him to write again. As I watched I felt that two ideas formed its mold. The first, from Tertullian, considers culture and religion. In De Praescriptione Haereticorum he asks: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? The second is from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: “Who can unravel the essence, the stamp of the artistic temperament! Who can grasp the deep instinctual fusion of discipline and dissipation on which it rests!”
Sorrentino answers Tertullian with images of a third city. His shots of Rome imbue everything they capture with a kind of Catholic sacramentalism. Here is the nightlife, here is a convent, here they are intertwined, and here is the protagonist in love with all of it and consequently, as he says, on the brink of despair. At every encounter with the sacred and the profane a representative from each asks him: “Why didn’t you write a second novel?” The deeper question is: why have you only been pretending to be alive?
Toni Servillo as Jep answers this question by answering Mann. He plays the gentleman author with poise and elegance. At first I was worried because he looks like an Italian Joe Biden, but after five minutes I realized that if Joe Biden had spent any time with this man he wouldn’t have had to settle for Vice President. The film is almost worth it for Jep’s suits. But notice the dignity of his nightly strolls and even his easy smile. The decadence of life in Rome has not erased its grace or compassion. He has the discipline of sprezzatura, a practiced indolence that mixes best with the dissipation of raucous nights.
Athens and Jerusalem, the sacred and profane, discipline and dissipation—they impress us most when they are gold-plated. Some may resent that this film is about rich people, but I go to movies to enjoy them, and it’s more fun to watch rich people survey the wreckage of their lives because the wreckage is much more extravagant than mine. You and I have our own wreckage, but it’s probably on a different budget. Sorrentino succeeds because he never forgets that the wreckage in both instances is still human. Hence the twin failures of the recent films The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street: All ruin, no people. A balance is necessary between the whirl of the high life and true contemplation of what it means to be alive. Otherwise a man who wakes at noon only to lie in a hammock with a glass of bourbon until the party resumes will not enchant us. Even if his jacket is by Kiton.
Sorrentino achieves this balance like Fellini before him. The nightlife is full of screaming, pulsing, intoxicated people: harridans, supermodels, dwarfs, eccentrics. But like an older, less mischievous Guido in 8&½ or Marcello in La Dolce Vita, Jep endures the post-party melancholy with his own self-proclaimed sensibility and humor. He goes for walks. We see what he sees: the nun picking oranges with her habit extending beyond her shoes so that she appears to be hovering, suspended from the tree like a white fruit. The Muslim couple eating pasta and the flash of dark eyes under a burka, children running in the gardens of the convent beneath his apartment. Sorrentino gives Jep a poet’s eye.
Jep claims he is the king of the high life, but it is also at his apartment, not the papal palace, where a visiting saint will dine. Of course, this is the same apartment where we watched a washed-up TV star spend the evening sucking up cocaine only to find herself awake at dawn, touching the blood rivulet on its way to her upper lip, watching passenger jets make contrails. But then there is also the profound moment when Jep and his consort encounter the man who has the keys to all of Rome’s monuments. There is even a magic giraffe and a visit to the wreck of the Costa Concordia (Does it stand for Jep? For Rome? All of Italy?). We’re forced to consider whether the waste can or cannot catalyze meaning.
I’m no technician, but to my eye the camera work throughout is pristine. And, like Fellini, the humor consistently drives deeper themes. If you see the film, look out for the “royals for hire” scene.
Good balance also requires a good soundtrack. Sorrentino deftly transitions from techno to Gorecki, Tavener, Bizet, the Kronos Quartet and back again. I had a difficult time understanding the addition of a Damien Jurado song midway through the film, but it’s a hiccup in a score that captures wide-ranging emotion without becoming a crutch.
While The Great Beauty is complex, it never lacks for grace and it never preaches. The final scene steals the final shot from La Dolce Vita while redeeming it in a way Fellini would likely have dismissed. It almost (but not quite) agrees with the final lines of Czeslaw Milosz’s “One More Day:”
And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil
Only beauty will call to them and save them
So that they will still know how to say: this is true and that is false.
Caveat emptor: This film might play a joke on you. The morning after I watched it I found myself reading through Ecclesiastes and ironing all three of my pocket squares with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake blaring. Also, there’s nudity.