Just see this movie.
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…
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.
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).
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.