Untruths and Fragility: La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty)

Untruths and Fragility:

La grande bellezza

(The Great Beauty)




“You’re 53, with a life in tatters like the rest of us.  Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection.  We’re all on the brink of despair.  All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little.

“Don’t you agree?”

                                                                                                                       — Jep Gambardella


To me, this picture is pretty much what movies are all about:  a character I’m intrigued by, utterly ravishing images, a thrilling soundtrack and tantalizing ideas.  Those ideas may not be sufficiently explored, it’s true, and that seems to be a black mark against this three-course cinematic feast in the eyes of some critics; but is that alleged lapse intentional?  I think so.  This is a film that is more complex and structured than it at first appears.

Writer and director Paolo Sorrentino (with his co-writer Umberto Contarello) opens with a quote from that old French anti-Semite and Holocaust Denier, Céline:

“Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination.  All the rest is disappointment and fatigue.”

In its way, the black comedy of Céline may come through here, but the truth is that I’m not familiar enough with his work to comment on how much it reflects on what Sorrentino has put on the screen.

I was initially going to say that ‘this is the story of jaded socialite and journalist Jep Gambardella’, but it’s not; not really.  What it is at most is a glimpse into his tired existence.  And it is a tired existence.  The beautiful but partially decaying backdrop of Rome is as important to The Great Beauty as is the extraordinary, ennui-lined face of the brilliant Toni Servillo, who plays Gambardella.

Jep wrote what almost everyone agrees was a brilliant Italian novel (although it is occasionally referred to as a novelette) forty years ago and hasn’t done anything of substance since.  His life seems to consist of an endless round of society events and parties.  Money doesn’t appear to be much of a problem, for him or his friends, as he picks and chooses the assignments that he accepts from the high-end Arts magazine to which he contributes.  As we see during an interview for one piece, he doesn’t suffer arty-fakes gladly and has an acerbic tongue when he needs it.  He also has a lovely sense of the absurd, something else he needs with the same ‘artist’, an annoying but believable phony called –God helps us!—Concept, who comes out with drivel like:

“The poetry of vibrations cannot be described with the vulgarity of words.” 

Yeah, if you say so, luv.

Actually, most of his acquaintances talk like this.  One bore comments:  “The Ethiopian jazz scene is the only interesting one today.”  Another says: “I’m going to write my first novel, a Proust-style piece.” 

These are the kind of horrors you dread being stuck next to on a long-haul flight.  It reminds me of a dinner-party that the great Peter Cook was once at.  One of this species said to him:  “I’m writing a novel.”

“Wonderful”, replied Cook.  “Neither am I.”

Pertinently, at one party Jep points out a man that he describes as one of Italy’s greatest poets.  “Why doesn’t he talk?” his companion enquires.  “Because he listens”, replies Jep, an odd little expression on his face.

Order out of Chaos?

After a brief introduction, at which tourists are shown around some Roman buildings whilst a choir rehearses, we are plunged into the film’s exhilarating opening scene.  It is Jep’s 65th birthday party and it a fabulous spectacle: a mix of pure energy, manic behavior, throbbing music, direct-to-camera shots and editing worthy of Ken Russell in his heyday.  It is purely alive.  And yet it is here that– combined with a visitor who will shortly remind him of an old love affair—we see Jep beginning to doubt the way that he lives his life.  Even a normal morning is alien to his existence.

He has meaningless sex with a beautiful woman called Orietta (Isabella Ferrari) who takes photos of herself all day…in order to get to know herself.  Jesus wept.  She would have felt right at home with the 2014 Oscar crowd or indeed any of the many pathetic dildos who seem to find taking ‘selfies’ an endless source of amusement. [Interestingly, Jep will later be doing a story on another self-obsessed moron who is giving an exhibition of his work, which consists solely of a photo of his face for every day of his life.]  As Orietta goes to get her computer in order to show him some photos of herself naked (he has just fucked her, mind) he decides that at this stage in his life he just doesn’t want to waste time doing things that he doesn’t want to anymore.

This is really reinforced at his next party, where he puts one of his acquaintances down in one of the most quietly devastating scenes I’ve come across in a while.  Stafania (Galatea Ranzi) has been boasting about who great she is when Jep picks her apart in front of everyone, dispassionately and ruthlessly:

“You’re forgetting your contribution to that reality show… ‘Girl Farm’.  What great conviction!  Should I envy you or be repelled?

“You know, all this boastful talk, all this serious ostentatiosness, all the ego… These harsh, damning judgments of yours hide a certain fragility, a feeling of inadequacy and above all a series of untruths.  We care about you, we know you.  We also know our untruths and for this, unlike you, we end up talking nonsense about trivial matters, because we don’t revel in our pettiness.”

I could just imagine Gore Vidal delivering this in the same world-weary way.

Stafania should have left well enough alone, but instead she has to go and challenge him to give an example of her untruths.

“In random order:  Your civil vocation during student days went unnoticed; but another vocation of yours is remembered by many, the one practiced by you then, in the university toilets.

“You wrote about the [Marxist] Party because you were its leader’s mistress.  And your eleven novels, published by a small publishing house subsidized by the Party, reviewed by minor Party-affiliated newspapers, are insignificant; everyone says so…

“Your relationship with Eusabio… What relationship?  Eusabio loves Giordano, everyone knows.  He has for years.  They lunch every day at Arnaldo’s, under the coat rack, like sweethearts under an oak tree.  You all know but turn a blind eye.  And your dedication to your children…?”

There is more, so much more; and just as it would be if we had been at that party, we cannot stop listening no more than the guests can, cringing though they are.  It is raw; open; magnificently cruel; and there is no Hollywood emoting:  there is just Jep’s quietly reasonable voice, destroying this woman piece by piece.

Over the previous four decades of sensation for the sake of it, Jep has been desensitized; but with memory of his old love refreshed and coming at the same time as meeting a fascinating new woman, he finds himself re-entering the world.  And what a woman she is!  Ramona is a 42-year old performance artist—oh, all right, she’s a stripper—and is played by the truly gorgeous Sabrina Ferilli.  As her father, says, she is a sophisticated stripper in a world that is no longer sophisticated.

After the first time she stays with him, Ramona comments:  “It was nice, not making love.”  But they both think that it was nice, loving each other.

I’ll say no more about this astonishing and visually sumptuous film, although I could write about it all day.  Watch it for yourself; but those critics who complain that there is no real story and no true addressing of the issues raised?  They’re right, there’s not; and I honestly don’t think that it matters. I would imagine that it is Sorrentino himself speaking through Jep when he has him reference, not once but twice, Flaubert’s ambition to write a novel in which nothing happens.

Yet there is a sequence in which I thought that he had made a serious mis-step.  It is where a young child, touted as an artistic genius who makes millions—is seen throwing buckets of paint randomly at a huge canvas.  I groaned at the idiocy of it; it has been done so many times before.  And then, just as we have almost forgotten about her, she is seen– so briefly that I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at—smoothing the splashes into something rather lovely, bringing Order out of Chaos.

I’m sure that there are dozens of other moments to be mined in further viewings of The Great Beauty.  There is a reference to ‘haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty’ and I can’t help wondering if it refers to Rome or the world in which Jep moves.  Looking at one of the endless Conga lines at one of the endless parties, Jep remarks that the trains in Rome are the best there are because they don’t go anywhere.

“Happy Birthday, Jep!” shouts one of the party goers at the start of this movie. “Happy Birthday, Rome!”  And it’s true:  you can’t imagine one without the other.

Author: Charley Brady

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