The Great Beauty, Film Review
The Great Beauty
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
The Squandering of Talent
“Therefore, let this novel begin. After all, it’s just a trick. Yes, it’s just a trick.” This is one of Jep Gambardella’s final statements in the Italian film, “The Great Beauty.”
Spoiler Alert: So, now we know that Jep will begin writing again as the movie ends. Even if Jep’s goal may be more aspirational than real, we are left with imagining what the sequel to his 65 year-old life will be.
Up to that point, it looked as if he would squander his one-novelette talent, living among Rome’s “idle rich.” And my God, are there many of that ilk in this film.
In another of his final soliloquies, Jep says, “This is how it always ends, in death. But first there was life hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah.”
And what was that life, according to Jep: “the silence and the emotion; the excitement and the fear; the fleeting and sporadic flashes of beauty amid the wretched squalor and human misery.”
“All,” Jep says, “buried beneath the awkward predicament of existing in this world.”
Mesmerized by Beauty Among the Frauds and the Foolish
Lots of “beneath” and “settling-to-the-bottom” metaphors here. But there is a final recognition by Jep that there was something “there there,” as the saying goes. Something in the “fleeting” nature of life’s beauty that tingles our souls, no matter how rushed those “flashes of beauty” may be.
Critics of this film spend a lot of time on the boredom of Jep’s languorous life among the rich and famous as he celebrates his 65th birthday. Up to that point he has chosen, for most of his adult life, to bide his time hanging out at conga-line parties in fashionable sartorial splendor with a constant drink in his hand and eying all the beautiful women with the melancholy and jaded look of an old guy who has been there and done that. However, he pretends to be still capable of mustering up some energy of-the-moment and a wry smile of interest.
Jep wrote one popular novel. And then he decided to be distracted by Rome’s “Great Beauty,” which he admits to not having found.
However, like so many of the other paradoxes and contradictions in the film, we can’t necessarily believe him. Beneath Jep’s male Neopolitan cynicism lies an aging romantic at heart. A romantic, who, in the end, continues to be mesmerized by beauty in all its forms—music, a woman’s face, a painting, a series of photographs.
Yes, he suffers lots of fools and frauds—a Roman Catholic cardinal who would rather talk about rabbit recipes than spirituality; a performance artist who fakes an illusory crash into a brick wall; a modern art collector who uses his young daughter to randomly throw paint on a canvas; an arm-chair leftist intellectual who spouts revolutionary sound bites but lives a comfortable bourgeois life; a clerical assistant to a popular aging saintly nun who uses her for his own financial gain; a narcissistic and wanna be actress and aspiring novelist whose only talent is to pose at parties; an alleged mystic unable to explain her self-described ability to read other people’s “vibrations”; an economically challenged aristocratic couple who “hire” themselves out to show up at fashionable parties; an over-the-hill tv personality who snorts cocaine; a doctor who injects chemicals into people’s lips to “enhance” their looks (cash up-front, of course); and a wealthy neighbor who is last seen in handcuffs and who Jep later tells us was on one of Italy’s ten-most-wanted list.
But Jep also gets glimpses into beauty. Not to mention his own ability to take in the depth of an experience, in spite of himself. Or his knack for having intimate friendships.
Who would have thought this flâneur is capable of fully absorbing the delight in an image of young Catholic school girls laughing at a dog being reeled in across the sandy pavement by its owner. Or catching a naughty glimpse of a nun reaching up for fruit in a tree. Or enjoying an intimate relationship with a forty-year old stripper who has a terminal disease. Or encouraging a friend to be honest about his own writing. Or to wander through the photo exhibit of a man’s daily photographs of himself from childhood to adulthood—visually walking by them and catching the poignancy of living in the moment, day by day, while, at the same time, sadly sensing the cruel passage of time. And his own mortality.
Or, more significantly: to wander tenderly back to a memory of his first summer romance when a young woman reveals her breasts to him; to weep at the funeral of a young man who committed suicide; to feel the profound sadness of the stripper’s death and his writer friend’s exodus from Rome; to praise an ex-girl friend’s husband and his new wife for their simple life; and, in the end, to absorb the sincerity of a saintly nun’s austere life of poverty.
At 65, Still Capable of Pushing the Refresh Key
Jep Gambardella is a male Neopolitan type, no doubt about it. He swaggers. He strolls. He has a biting sense of irony, even cruelty. He drinks hard. He is an aesthete, in the old Victorian sense of the word. He is lazy. He loves to sleep. He shamelessly flirts
But he also loves. He feels. He weeps. He is still curious. And, most of all, he is capable of pushing his own refresh key, even at 65. He may be lying to us all, in the end, but I, for one, will give him some slack.