The following essay is included in our first print issue, "Art & Literature for Dissidents".
Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty": A Review
I cannot recall a film I’ve seen in the past ten years that has moved me like Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty did. One of my younger brothers gave me hell for using that word film during a return trip from college once upon a time and he let me know just how pretentious it sounded in casual conversation (which in retrospect it did). But here the word seems to apply. There’s something about the movie that demands a distinction. Upon a buddy’s recommendation I checked it out a few years back and it became immediately apparent that The Great Beauty has a depth and quality that reaches past the movies we’ve become accustomed to; the Capeshit, the Reboot, the Pozzed Oscar-Bait, the Shoot-Em-Ups. Instead, it is a study of life as seen through the eyes of the aging Italian author-playboy and art critic Jep Gambardella. There were moments in it that lingered in my mind after it ended, and I would like to share a few of my favorites. (Contains spoilers.)
Following a quote from Céline and a warm sunlit montage showing us tourists and locals going about their day in Rome, the modern swirling along the ruins of the ancient, night falls and we are dropped into a frantic rooftop dance party. An old TV showgirl emerges from a cake to inform us it’s Jep’s 65th birthday, and the camera settles on a dapper man with slicked-back gray hair dancing energetically at the center of attention. Jep’s back is to us, but he soon turns around in an almost-strut, revealing a cigarette jutting out with righteous impertinence from a magnetic grin. People adore him, women kiss him, and he’s every inch the Grand Old Chad. For me, this was where the movie set an interesting hook; the protagonist is an adult. Jep is not a heartthrob cast to appeal to young women or a young man’s avatar for an adventure fantasy. This is a grown man with years on him. Though when we meet Jep here he is in his revels and raising hell, he still possesses a gravitas that reminded me of the way people were in old movies, and upon reflection, made me realize how much I’d missed that.
Then the song changes and the partygoers fall into ranks for a kind of line dance. Part of the way through it though, the world slows down and Jep steps out in real-time to have a smoke and let us in. He lets his mask fall and we see he isn’t as happy as he seemed. He shares his thoughts. Again, this drew me in and made me like him. For anyone having spent nights drunk and wild and chasing something, this is a feeling you understand. Though like Jep you play the game and take your pleasure where you can, ultimately your heart cannot find what it seeks and wanders. From there I was all in and had to see if he’d find it.
Later, Jep lazily sprawls upon his rooftop hammock, drink in hand, as the sun bathes the world in a warm gold. At the sound of children he gets up to walk to the edge of the roof to watch them run around the grounds of what looks to be an orphanage under the care of a cloister of nuns. Farewell to the Highlands plays, and at the sight of the children and nuns in the garden at play, Jep smiles. It fades into a look of contemplation as he takes a drink.
Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty"
This moment of warmth and innocence among the children and nuns is followed immediately by the self-important performance art of a Commie Art Hoe. Spectators sit on the grass next to an old Roman aqueduct watching her as she stands nude, save for a white gauzy cloth shrouding her face. A Soviet hammer-and-sickle has been painted above her lady-parts. She takes off and runs headlong into the aqueduct, leaps to head-butt the stone, then collapses to the ground and whimpers in pain. Jep interviews her later that evening. She talks about herself in the third person and though she tries to play up the avant-garde artist angle with talk of “vibrations” and the like, Jep is having none of it, and he casually shatters her with a few questions, revealing her for a pathetic self-important fraud.
That he lightly dismantles the Commie Art Hoe is something we see echoed later in a rooftop conversation with his friends. One of them is a 52-year-old Socialist Girlboss who gets on a soapbox about the lack of civic vocation in the young measured against her own sacrifices. Her obnoxious self-important manner becomes too much for Jep and he lazily shivs her ego in a vicious takedown. For several minutes he confronts her with her own hypocrisy and the reality that her “life is in tatters” like the rest of them. The first time I saw this scene I couldn’t help but grin. You never see a movie of this quality in the States deflating the Shitlib-Striver psyche, but director Paolo Sorrentino (who also did a magnificent job with The Young Pope) does just that through Jep’s masterful trolling.
Soon Jep meets an old friend who introduces him to his daughter Ramona, a forty-something stripper. The two begin a kind of platonic romance and we see her accompanying him to one of his parties. At one point, he introduces her to a serious bespectacled young man named Stefano, who we find has keys to some of the most beautiful hidden palaces in Rome. At Jep’s request, the three take us on a tour of them. Ramona asks Stefano how it was he came to be in possession of the keys and he simply says, “Because I’m a trustworthy person.” It is such a fun mystery to think of the sorts of places hidden in the open and known only to a person like Stefano who seems a kind of agent to some underground Rome where the old wonders went to hide in quiet dignity.
Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty"
Soon after, a troubled young man dies and Jep takes Ramona shopping for something to wear to the funeral. As she tries on dresses he describes to her the proper way to participate in the public spectacle of a funeral as a socialite, explaining that one must never cry or let one’s grief overshadow that of the bereaved family. However, after he gives the mother of the dead young man his practiced words, we see something is happening to him inside that clashes with his advice. The priest asks the friends of the young man to come to bear his coffin and no one comes forward, revealing he had no friends. Jep casts a glance at one of his friends named Lello who up until this point has come across as a sleazy old man. They exchange a nod, and along with a few others from their circle, stand and approach to shoulder the coffin. I loved this gesture from Lello. There was a kind of conspiracy of gallant manliness about it between him and Jep. Without saying a word, they acknowledged what honor demanded of them and they went about it. Lello’s wife sees him rise and reminds him of his bad back, but Lello ignores this, the small everyday gesture of heroism redeeming his character. While this happens, Jep too goes against what we’ve seen of his character and weeps from deep sorrow as he shoulders the coffin. Ramona watches him, and her face shows a muted surprise in seeing he has once again removed his mask of glib detachment.
As Jep and Ramona lay around talking in his bedroom one day she explains she spends all her money on medicine, then suddenly we see her no more. The camera cuts from them laying together to her naked foot at the edge of the bed resting completely still in contrast to the breeze caressing the curtains through the open window. We hear the strumming of Damien Jurado’s Everything Trying and it leads us to a dreamlike scene where Jeps buys a pack of cigarettes at a small bar. The sound is muted save for the beautiful melancholy ballad and all motion slows. Jep walks toward a door in the back and a woman sitting nearby reaches out to stop him. As he turns and walks away she asks, “Who will take care of you now?” There was something mysterious in this part of the movie that raised more questions than answers for me, and I still don’t think I’ve grasped the whole of it. As it is, the lonesome Country/Folk-sounding music of a love gone wrong, the slowness of the scene, and the way Jep seems separate from those in the bar reminded me of my own times of loss or hurt where I was going about my life as normal, but inside I felt out of phase with everything around me, and I wonder if conveying that feeling is what Sorrentino was going after. If so, then I think he pulled it off. At any rate, the abrupt disappearance of Ramona in itself was as powerful as anything seen in the film, showing with her absence how suddenly and completely death and endings come. As quickly as she came into Jep’s life she has gone, and with her goes what might be his last chance to ever love a woman.
Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty"
Though it is less of a scene and more of a reoccurring practice we see from Jep throughout the movie, he often ventures out on walks throughout the city. We get the sense Rome is almost a character itself; she is a companion to Jep and she shares her mysteries with him. During one such stroll, Jep walks home after meeting Ramona for the first time, and as he climbs up a series of stone steps he passes an elegant woman descending from the opposite direction. A haunting orchestral rendition of an Orthodox hymn called The Beatitudes plays as recognition dawns on Jep. He stops and turns, and with an almost reverent warmth calls out, “Madame Ardant!” The woman smiles and they wordlessly share a moment. She then wishes him good night and Jep beams as he watches her continue on her way. I had no idea Madame Ardant was the French actress Fanny Ardant playing herself in a cameo. It didn’t matter to me. Here was an enchanting woman who might as well have been a princess, and like Jep, she was out on her own enigmatic midnight errand. It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit, but for me it helped accentuate how with his walks around Rome, and because he is looking, every now and again Jep occasions upon magic.
One of my favorite moments in The Great Beauty is an exhibit Jep goes to cover which begins with him and another man entering a sunny courtyard. Framing a dark green lawn are stately old white walls with sections covered with wallet-sized photos. The man explains that his father took a picture of him every day since he was born and when he was fourteen he kept up the practice. He invites Jep to tour them, and once again The Beatitudes plays to let us know we are on Holy Ground. There is something powerful in this scene in the way all the themes and images and music come together that overwhelms me every time; a father loving his son so much he had to capture a moment of his face every day; the way the face changed as we see it through Jep’s eyes, going from childhood to awkward adolescence, then adulthood. In seeing the simple fact of a human life told through pictures, we see Jep overtaken with emotion.
Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty"
There are a series of social events Jep attends surrounding the visit of a revered saint named Sister Maria. To round out the guest list of a dinner, the organizers hire the Collanas, an old couple we see watching TV in a small apartment, to attend as visiting nobility. They are practically invisible for the dinner; however, we see them again as they arrive home. The wife tells her husband she will be going to see something for a minute, giving us the impression this is a regular thing with her. The husband tells her not to be too long, and we follow her through a darkened palace until she arrives at a bassinet lit in an exhibit. She picks up a receiver and a recorded voice informs us this was where she was placed when she was born. The voice tells us her mother had been a princess who had died giving birth, and though the daughter had survived and had a happy childhood there, the Collanas had soon lost their fortune. Watching Madame Collana’s face broke my heart. Though we know they are aristocrats who are now reduced to living relics and hiring themselves out as a kind of act, beneath their station and fall in status we see the simple love of a child for the mother who loved her into being and died bringing her into the world. Gazing upon her bassinette we see her look across time toward the mother she never met and happier days now gone.
At the end, Jep finally gets to visit Sister Maria without the burden of status-chasers and novelty-seekers. She looks older than God’s dog, and her quiet piety struck a wonderful trope-defying contrast to the religious figures throughout the movie who seem self-important, disinterested, or shallow, and her later attempt in the film to crawl up a series of stairs on her hands and knees toward a depiction of the Crucifixion was moving. She had been a fan of the novel Jep had written as a young man and she asks: “Why did you never write another book?” Jep replies:
“I was looking for the great beauty, but… I didn’t find it.”
This yearning seems to track along with the memory of his first love who we see through flashbacks and at one point we find out from her widowed husband she had died. It’s as though loving her opened up some awareness or need in him and the loss of her led him to a life of searching for something to satisfy it; some beauty or glory which had been reflected in that love long ago and emerges in small ways throughout the movie as the transcendent flashes through the mundane world around him.
There has been discussion on the political in art in these circles, and I would say Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty has a wonderfully reactionary quality about it that places it in opposition to what is often featured in modern film. The strivers and Progressive apparatchiks are shown to be as shallow and broken as anyone, though with the added folly of believing themselves as the righteous vanguard of some utopia that never seems to come. The transgressive art Jep covers is silly, pretentious, grotesque, and performative, while the wholesome contents itself with showing a mirror to the human experience. Likewise, the wild nightlife is seen as tired and decadent rather than having any real joy or passion to it, and the affairs featured in it are almost always seen as hollow experiences, save for ones blessed with the quickening wonder and power of love and warmth. As we follow Jep casually pursuing his quest, we are reminded that life is more than random molecules moving through space. There is more than what is seen and a meaning behind matter that we cannot begin to fathom. However, if we are willing to look for it, and if the time is right, we may occasionally find a portal to it through great beauty.