When Beauty Isn’t Enough: Paolo Sorrentino’s “La grande bellezza” (The Great Beauty)

Just see this movie.

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The opening sequence of Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande belleza is one of the greats of recent memory. Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Biggazi send the camera sweeping and gliding through the splendor of Rome. It’s Gianicolo Hill – monuments and statues and a massive fountain, all punctuated by a female choral rendition of David Lang’s haunting “I Lie.” As the camera explores the park we meet Romans inured to the beauty around them. One woman sits beside a statue reading the newspaper, a cigarette precariously dangling from her mouth as she looks up, annoyed, we think, at the garrulous birds in the trees above her. Another man in his undershirt washes himself in ancient fountain. Another sleeps on a park bench, his face turned away from the world around him, as though he can’t face it any longer. They are surreal figures, the kind that haunt most cities: idle and indifferent to the beauty and excitement around them, to the history they wash themselves in. Sorrentino eventually moves on to a group of Japanese tourists listening to a tour guide. One man peels away from the group to take photos of the view of the city. It’s too much, too much beauty. He keels over – and doesn’t get up.

 

Narratively this has nothing to do with the story of Jep Gambardella but, as we discover through the course of the film, it is the essence of Jep’s story. Once a great writer – or at least having the promise of being a great writer – Jep (Toni Servillo) now lives in an endless swirl of parties and women. He still writes, but he writes fluff pieces for a cultural magazine. The promise of his first and only novel has faded. He tells us he came to Rome and fell pretty quickly. The allure of the nightlife overtook him and his art crumbled. Others mourn the work he never did, but there’s nothing he can do about it. He can’t denounce the life he loves – the life that makes serious writing impossible. He hints, though never really says, that he saw the pointlessness of it all. Nothing is real, everyone is as phony as a facelift. Everything is wrapped up in irony and pretense; how can he cull any meaning out of that? He remarks more than once about Flaubert’s failed attempt to write a book about nothing and, Jep seems to think, the only thing he’s capable of writing about now is nothing. And if Flaubert couldn’t do it…

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But something happens at his 65th birthday. Forty years of parties begin to feel like a wasted life and he begins his surreal odyssey through the nightclubs and back alleys and strip clubs and palaces and ancient ruins of Rome. He isn’t exactly looking for meaning; he isn’t exactly questioning his life choices. (He’s too self-aware for anything so hackneyed.) But we think this will be a typical journey of redemption – you know the ones where the protagonist realizes he needs to do this or that to get whatever it is he or she lost before whatever it was happened and so on and so forth.

 Sorrentino makes it more complicated than that though. He throws all the typical redemption figures at Jep and when each one is introduced we, being sophisticated filmgoers, map the trajectory of the story in our heads. We meet the stripper with the heart of gold, a figure from the past with tragic news, a chance meeting with a cardinal, an 104-year-old nun on her way to sainthood (who looks like a cross between Mother Teresa and the Cryptkeeper). But they all fade away without offering that catharsis for Jep. Even a chance encounter with Fanny Ardant feels promising. We think this must be it! After all, Sorrentino wouldn’t have gotten an actress of such stature for just a few seconds of film time, right? She has to return, help save Jep, but she wanders off into the night, never to be seen again.

There are no easy answers, no one who can save him from himself. He has to walk the path alone. Others can help point the way, but there won’t be any emotional life preservers tossed from anyone else. Toward the end of the film he thinks about leaving Rome, one of those simple solutions we might expect. His loyal friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) has already decided to desert the city. Rome has disappointed me, he tells Jep and he hightails it to his hometown without even packing. But let’s be honest: A simple solution is right for Romano, a man who writes corny melodramas and makes a fool of himself with a much younger woman who is clearly using him for rides to the airport and we can only imagine what else. Jep on the other hand is violently self-aware. Running away wouldn’t be any more productive than staying. Then he would be both unproductive and bored. Staying in Rome he can at least stay only unproductive.

 This is an overwhelmingly visual movie in which we experience Rome through a lens we probably haven’t seen since Fellini was making movies. All of Fellini’s favorite surrealistic flourishes are here: the dwarf, the incongruent exotic animal, the ambiguous but consistent presence of priests and nuns, magicians, quacky doctors, chance encounters in the night with a beautiful women. Some critics have called it a modern day retelling of La Dolce Vita. I think that’s a bit too easy though. I prefer to read it as a grown up version of Fellini. (Because wasn’t there always a childlike playfulness about his work?) The scene with Fanny Ardant strikes me as a sequel to Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg’s date in La Dolce Vita. Instead of whispering “Madame Ardant” he may just have well have whispered “fröken Ekberg.” Older, wiser, they see each other again, share an unspoken but fond memory and move on. Their evening together in the Trevi Fountain can’t be repeated.

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Jep is a man looking for beauty. He tells this to the nun who asks why he never wrote another book. “I was looking for the great beauty,” he says, but he never found it. That he doesn’t see the irony is shocking. He has this conversation on the terrace of his apartment – a terrace that overlooks the Colosseum. The Colosseum for cying out loud! If you can’t see they beauty here, in this city, where do you think you’ll find it? Beauty is all around him. He visits the wreck of the Costa Concordia and damn if that isn’t beautiful too.

 We realize that beauty isn’t enough – physical beauty anyway. Rome has taught him we need more. Beauty is everywhere but what does it mean when it’s populated by plastic people who don’t understand or care about anything other than their own enjoyment? Fellini’s – and countless other artists’ – imagination was complimented, enhanced by the excesses of Rome so any claim that Rome stifled art is a self-satisfying excuse. Empty people do not squeeze the life out of artists. Artists with nothing to say, however, are easily distracted by empty people (something that rings true here in Los Angeles).

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So if not physical beauty, what? At 65 Jep finally wants it all to mean something. At one point he breaks down and cries at a funeral after diligently explaining that one never cries at a funeral (for you don’t want to upstage the family). We feel his tears aren’t for the lost life in the box, but for the wasted life all around him. He desperately wants it all to mean something. Jep and his friends embrace meaninglessness because they too were once awed by Rome, only to spend enough time there to realize it’s all a show. At one point Jep says the most interesting people in Rome are the tourists, or the ones attending the show. Tourists aren’t part of it. They can stand outside and ooh and aah at the Panteon or the Spanish Steps. They can’t.  

 Whether or not he finds meaning is up for debate. The end is rightfully vague, leaving us to determine whether the journey ultimately has any meaning on our own. I prefer to believe Jep finally acknowledges there is no meaning beyond that which we assign, that art and life are only as meaningful as we believe them to be and, like faith in God, is easy to lose. After 40 years he’s finally willing to submit to faith – faith in truth and beauty and life – and, thereby, will finally be able to write his second book.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “When Beauty Isn’t Enough: Paolo Sorrentino’s “La grande bellezza” (The Great Beauty)

  1. Gijs Grob

    Very interesting analysis!

  2. A great, great, great movie indeed, and an excellent review Jason!!!!

    A poetic, dream-like and impressionistic film with a frenetic vibe and a pulsating and operatic score, LA GRANDE BELLEZZA captures the melancholic and subversive images of Italian culture, history and night-life that echos Fellini and “La Dolce Vita” with more than a generous sprinkling of decadence and satire. Its a kind of travelogue, but in the very best sense. Paulo Sorrentino is a major talent, and THE GREAT BEAUTY (American title) is one of the best films of the year without question. Foe me in the Top 3 with 12 YEARS A SLAVE and SHORT TERM 12. You really have written an inspired piece here.

  3. Thank you Sam. I see you liked it as much as I did. It would certainly be in the top 5 and probably even top 3 of the year for me.

  4. Pingback: The Invisible Woman and Kill Your Darlings on Monday Morning Diary (January 6) | Wonders in the Dark

  5. Grace

    wow what a great review. very succinct! I haven’t watched a film this complex and beautiful in awhile. thank you for putting into words what has been winding my head all day. its still hard for me, in recommending it, to gather up the words to describe this film because I feel there’s still SO much to digest and process. but I know this film HAS to be shared.

    • Thank you Grace! It’s nice to hear you loved the movie as much as I did. Needless to say I was pleased to see it win the Oscar for best foreign language film. Hopefully it will get more people to watch the best movie I saw last year.

      Hope to hear from you again soon!

  6. Kamil

    One of the movies we can see just rarely, and a great review. Congrats! I’m from Europe, so maybe able even more to appreciate all around. For me the best movie of 2013 (and I have to say I really love Gravity).

  7. Igor

    This is the very best analysis of the movie that I read on the web.

    Therefore, since we can debate the ending, I think that the final scene shows Jeb finally recognizing the Great Beuaty of his life, that is, his first and unforgotten love. And when he comes to terms with the loss of a great love, he can finally move on and admire everything else.

    • Thank you Igor. I really appreciate your comment.

      I like your take on the end. It certainly seems that his life–his creative life, that is–was on hold for many years and coming to terms with the loss of his love may have been caused this.

      Thanks again and I hope to see your comments in the future.

      • Jan

        The final scene is preceded by the ‘Santa’ saying that she always eats carrots/roots “because roots are important”. Maybe this brings Jep to realise the importance of his own roots, his first love, which would support Igor’s understanding of the final scene.

        I also agree with Igor that you wrote the best analysis avaiable on the web. It’s remarkable how superficial critics from well-known papers have watched and reviewed this film. I think you are the only one who noticed that this 104-year old ‘Santa’ doesn’t “offer a catharsis for Jep” either, while others saw it as a (tasteless) moralist appraisal of her lifestyle.
        (I’m just not sure whether this Japanese tourist in the beginning dies because the Roman beauty is too impressive. I think it might as well point to the futility of man’s desire to record our life [rather than just experiencing it].)

        Best wishes from the Netherlands

        • Thank you for your kind words, Jan. I like your take on the Japanese tourist in the prologue. There was a time when it was the artists who would record the beauty of life, but today–with the ubiquitous cameras on all our phone–we’re all potential and obsessive recorders. It makes me wonder how much we miss when we’re looking through the screen rather than what we’re recording.

  8. Todd

    Absolutely the best analysis I’ve seen of La Grande Bellezza. Thank you for this. I too basically agree with your view on the end. As I see it, to extend the thought or perhaps shift it a bit, he has defined a faith that there is beauty cast before wretched humanity (as you say). He does say he’s ready to begin writing again at the end, presumably to elucidate that beauty. As an artist, he will rely on his “tricks” to do so. He’s just toured us through the beauty of Rome and his life where his youth was wiled away, the place he spent many years looking for the great beauty. And yet in the end, he returns to this moment of his youth outside of Rome with the girl showing him her breasts. In his youth, his friends most liked “pussy,” but had a different sensibility and just looked at the proffered beauty without touching. The “looking” continued throughout his life — and he realized that the Great Beauty is the sum of all the little beauties, with the blah blah blah wiped away, cast before miserable humanity; he being more sensitive and “sensible” is perhaps more capable to understand this and present it [but he would never even use as hackneyed a formulation as saying "the sum of all the little beauties" -my phrase]. Not a huge redemption, but a faith in beauty (as you said) and a revitalized desire to write, to use tricks to bring this beauty to life. Which of course, refers to the very movie itself, using an extended trick to bring beauty to life.

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