Sorrentino’s award-winning drama opens with a quote from Céline‘s Journey to the End of the Night: “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.”
Jep Gambardella lies on his bed, wraps his arms around his head, and gazes at the ceiling – except he does not see a ceiling, he sees water – cool, shimmering, sky-blue summer water.
We see this striking, almost surreal image several times over the course of Paolo Sorrentino’s beautiful The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza). And there is no more apt adjective for this Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner, because The Great Beauty is quite simply a beautiful film to look at, to listen to, and to ponder.
Jep Gambardella (a wonderful Toni Servillo, looking like a cross between Joe Biden and Bill Maher) is a sixty-five-year-old Italian author whose best days, and best writing, seem behind him. Once the promising young writer of the acclaimed and highly successful The Human Apparatus, Jep became content to rest on his laurels and lead the easy life of a classic European flâneur (though less a Walter Benjamin-type intellectual flâneur than an Italian Jack Nicholson-type flâneur) instead of engaging in the difficult task of writing. Having earned enough money from his one hit novel, Jep no longer needs to go out into the court of literature every day, and in Rome – with its great food, nightly parties, uninhibited (or “sophisticated,” as a character in a Woody Allen movie might put it) southern European women, endlessly fascinating sights, and infinite opportunities for languid people-watching – why write? If one has the means to enjoy life, and one lives in a city where enjoying life is not a difficult goal to pursue for those with means, why work?
But at sixty-five, Jep seems to be experiencing a mid- (or three-quarters) life crisis. He holds regular gatherings (less salons than they are parties that occasionally involve group discussions) with his clique of mildly successful Italian literati who, except for one woman in the group, have no delusions about their definitively upper-middlebrow status in the world of art. They are content, seemingly, to party away their nights dancing to electronica and while away their days in desultory conversations.
Audiences and critics alike have correctly described The Great Beauty as Fellini-esque, for Sorrentino does bathe the screen with the sort of warm, colorful visuals and occasional melancholic tones that are the hallmarks of Fellini’s oeuvre. But Sorrentino (who has publicly acknowledged Fellini’s influence on The Great Beauty) goes a step beyond Fellini; Sorrentino’s camera caresses his actors in warmth. None of the actors in The Great Beauty could be described as classically beautiful, yet the camera does not shy away from them – instead, it revels in their physical imperfections and tells audiences that we – that everyone, not only conventionally beautiful individuals – all deserve the kind of warm camera caresses (or, in film parlance, to be beneficiaries of “the gaze”) typically showered on the flawless, airbrushed beauties of mainstream film. We are the great beauties, says The Great Beauty – we, in all of our imperfect gloriousness, with all our wrinkles and distinctively shaped features, with all of our different colors and amounts of hair, with all of our height and weight differences – we, the real, non-airbrushed human beings, are the true great beauties of this world.
Jep’s midlife crisis is provoked by the death of his friend’s wife (Elisa), a woman who was apparently Jep’s first love. We’re given occasional, fleeting, Marienbad-esque glimpses into Jep’s memory of his first romantic encounter with this young woman. Just as we know something happened between “X” (the unnamed man) and “A” (the unnamed woman) during their stay at the Marienbad resort without ever being quite sure what it was, something of a romantically ambiguous nature was shared between Jep and Elisa one summer near the shimmering, light-blue waters of an idle summer beach.
Sorrentino’s camera focuses on Elisa in these cryptic scenes in a way that evokes Alain Resnais’s steady focus on Delphine Seyrig (“A”) in Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Both women exist more in the minds and memories of their spellbound men – “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi, whose character, interestingly enough, is described as “the man with the Italian accent”) and Jep – than they do in the objective realities of the respective worlds of both films.
Sorrentino suffuses the screen with other Marienbad-esque touches, such as cold, white marble statues, random assortments of well-dressed Europeans gathered inside fine European homes – the sort of homes featuring the endless corridors and mirrors of the famed Marienbad resort – and a balcony that overlooks a garden very much like the one behind the resort. The sum of these various Marienbad influences and motifs creates the impression that we must be just as suspect of the haltingly brief glimpses we’re shown of Jep’s memory as we are of “X’s” account of what occurred between him and “A” (the “brunette”) during that strange, shadow-occluded year at Marienbad.
Nevertheless, it is these vague memories that catalyze Jep’s sudden reassessment of his life. And his reassessment is also unconsciously provoked by the constant specter of religion that surrounds him and his Roman friends. In very few cities – Mecca and Jerusalem being perhaps the only others – is religion such an integral aspect of the city’s culture, society, and structure. Even the irreligious are surrounded by religion; religion is woven into the fabric of the city the way electrical wiring courses through the walls of modern homes and offices. Even if it appears invisible, it is there.
And religion is an overt presence in The Great Beauty, largely because the presence of Catholicism is inescapable in Rome. Jep’s daily wanderings over and about the city often take him past a convent, and he tends to take his time observing the daily patterns and religious rituals of the lives of some of these nuns in the same manner Japanese tourists in The Great Beauty observe the daily patterns and rituals of the lives of Jep and his compatriots.
Jep is brought into even closer orbit with religion when he hosts a dinner for an important Italian cardinal (who, apparently, is not only next in line for the papacy but was also once the country’s foremost exorcist) and an ancient Mother Teresa-type saint.
The flâneur and the saint; the literati and the clergy; this world and the world-to-come; one senses that Sorrentino deliberately evokes these classic religious contrasts in order to make some sort of statement, or to at least explore the relationship between the artist and the religionist.
How do these seemingly opposing classes of individuals regard each other? At times, they view each other with a “grass is greener on the other side” attitude, and Jep’s attempt at a virtuous act – helping out his friend’s daughter – may be an admission that he is lacking in virtue, much as the way in which the cardinal rhapsodizes about food may be an admission that he is lacking in certain forms of pleasure (which he attempts to compensate for by reveling in gustatory delights). Yet, despite their brief flirtations with other ways of life and other manners of experience, they ultimately resign themselves to the lives they have led because they believe they have led the lives that are best for them. How Jep and his circle will fill their lives with some sort of meaning and, if they are seeking it, some semblance of hope for the future – something to look forward to beyond sleeping with partners they have yet to sleep with – is unclear. But while one of Jep’s friends becomes so disconsolate at his hopeless future that he embarks on a reverse Cinema Paradiso (1988) odyssey and leaves Rome to return to his small hometown village (in Cinema Paradiso, Alfredo the projectionist memorably advises then-future director Salvatore to head to Rome and leave sentimentality and his village behind), perhaps Jep and most of his circle don’t need to look forward to anything. Perhaps the pressing issue in their lives – and the pressing issue in the lives of most artists and non-religionists – is not whether there is anything to look forward to, but how to best experience their existence each day. As Jep intimates toward the end of this story, “looking forward” – viz., heaven – is not the business of novelists anyway. “I don’t deal with what lies beyond,” Jep says to himself, as if finally arriving at a modicum of emotional and spiritual catharsis. His business is in the telling of stories of human lives in this world, and writers like Jep are needed to perform this service in the best and most beautiful way possible.
And what of the saints? Mirroring Jep, they understand that their business is not in pleasure and riches, so why be envious of what Jep and his friends have had? “We have led good lives, and our business is in other matters,” they seem to say. The flâneurs and the saints reach a tacit, unarticulated rapprochement: we have radically divergent lives, yet we live together, and we benefit by living alongside each other. We eat together, we party together, we inhabit the same social, cultural, and physical space, yet we are different, and we exult in our differences. Our lives, and the lives of others, are made richer and more colorful because we live together while maintaining our distinctive, beautiful ways of life. We are different streams of water – aquamarine-tinged waves and deep-sea-blue tinted waters – that merge in the exquisite shimmering waters of our infinite minds.