The Great Beauty, an exceptional film by Paolo Sorrentino, starring Toni Servillo

The sublime is the beauty, order, and reason suffusing existence, the purpose of existence

by Daniel Garrett Volume 21, Issue 8 / August 2017 12 minutes (2839 words)

The Great Beauty, a film by Paolo Sorrentino
Screenplay by Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello
Produced by Nicola Giuliano and Francesca Cima
Janus Films, 2013

Jep enjoys the sweet life

The Great Beauty, focused on the sixty-fifth birthday of a successful journalist and social animal in Rome, is a wonderful film: it presents a cosmopolitan portrait of life, and each image in the film seems well-chosen, for its architecture and interior design, for the presentation of nature and scene and visual art, for the location and placement of persons and movement. The central character among many eccentric characters, the journalist Jep Gambardella is smart and suave, a libertine who is too self-aware and honest to be self-infatuated or proud, and too generous to be cynical. Jep Gambardella (actor Toni Servillo) is a wonderfully believable and likable character. His life has been easy (his friends are rich, and he has a grand apartment, and the women are still attracted to him), but that has been part of his problem: Jep has not had to demand much of himself. The motion picture is full of personalities and their smart talk, and it presents diverse stories, different lives, with their comedy and drama. The Great Beauty could be a continuation of the work of great film directors such as Visconti, Fellini, and Bertolucci, men who created photoplays of grandeur and history, strangeness and truth. The importance of consciousness, personal choice, public discourse, art, money, and politics are the content of the conversations, conversations that are serious and also distractions from private dilemmas—a second book that was never written; a husband in love with someone else; a disturbed, suicidal son. The film allows meditation on modern existence, on the complexities and idiosyncrasies of modern contemporary life in great cities: the personal liberties and odd loneliness, and collisions of past and present, prominent industries, celebrity culture, jazz, cocaine, botox parties, and indulgent sexuality.

Rome, one of the cradles of civilization, a land of history and myth, with its great villas and museums and fountains, its fashion houses and restaurants, is fact and fantasy: a city of religious power and criminal organization, a city of democracy and corruption; a city in which much has happened and much still seems possible. A great city, such as Rome or New York or London or Paris, embodies accomplishment and promise, but challenges us: there are competitors for whatever or whomever we desire; and there are disciplines and rigors required for any worthy goal, personal, philosophical, professional, or political. There are usually issues of survival—of gaining the daily bread and the monthly rent. There are distractions—some of them delightful and delicious. One’s ambitions are not always fulfilled. The disappointments and compromises found in living in a great city are acknowledged in The Great Beauty, a wondrous work in which scenes of solitude follow scenes of community, in which anguish follows joy, in which routine and surprise shadow each other. The film has some recurring punctuations: Jep’s imagining the ceiling above his bed as a wavering blue sea, a sea that has special meaning for him; Jep’s comically frisky conversations with his housemaid (she calls him a rascal); Jep sharing a meal with his editor Dadina, a very short, smart and self-accepting woman; and Jep’s walking alone in the city. One of the most marvelous things a person is able to do in a great city is to connect with cultural tradition, one or more such traditions; and here, in The Great Beauty, are the ruins of ancient civilization and the performance art of today. Yet, connecting with cultural tradition—a necessity and a passion and a life mission for some—is, sometimes tragically, not always enough. One wants to do genuinely good work—one wants to have done good work—and have that be rewarded: one does not simply want to be ambitious or dedicated, always seeking, always struggling. One wants friendship and love and spiritual fulfillment.

The Great Beauty opens with a quote from Celine regarding life as an imaginary journey; and we, the film audience, see various historical monuments in Rome and a man washing his body in the pristine waters of a grand pool, first the great (marble monuments) then the mundane (the body in need of cleansing); and we hear and see a chorus; and nearby is a group of tourists—and soon one solitary man moves from the visiting group to take a photograph of a hillside scene, and he feels very hot and collapses. Rome can be overwhelming. Next, it is night and a woman faces the camera and screams; one of several times in the film when someone will face the camera, accepting or responding to the fact of an observer or companion (this acknowledges rather than breaks the fourth wall: after a moment, we understand that there is someone nearby—someone other than the film viewer—who may have been addressed). The dark-haired woman with bright red lips screams, a scream of exhilaration at the birthday party that Jep Gambardella, a slim pale man with longish hair, a man of energy, style, and wit, is throwing for himself at his fabulous apartment. The dancers are men and women of diverse ages and types. They seem recognizable. These are real faces, real bodies, some of them firm and muscular, some of them aged. The music is good. A man (a married man, a toy manufacturer, a close friend of Jep) tells a woman (a model-actress) dancing above him that he wants to have sex with her; and he repeats that, vulgarly. Elsewhere at the party, we see a red-haired, tattooed woman posing, gazing at her reflection. It seems a terrific party. Jep’s editor and friend Dadina (Giovanna Vignola) sits down and falls asleep and is forgotten, and she wakes—and we see this small person framed by large, bulbous white lights and then walking on a rooftop in early dawn.

Style is everything

Jep has turned a corner in his life; and he has reason to be pleased and reason for doubt. When young, Jep wrote a remarkable book, a novel, The Human Apparatus, but has not followed with further fiction; and Jep has been a good journalist, asking the right questions, giving the right responses (he is intelligent, but without pretension). Yet, while Jep enjoys his life—it is nearly always one big party—he does not feel as if he has accomplished anything very important. His celebrated book is not in the shops. Riding up in an elevator to his apartment, he notices the suit of a neighbor and excitedly inquires about the tailor (this kind of thing can seem shallow, silly, but human existence—and human accomplishment—really is, quite often, a matter of things; and joy often comes in appreciating the things around us). The mysterious neighbor—who has his own story—does not respond to Jep’s inquiry when it is first made (the neighbor will respond later, in the midst of a much more serious moment). Jep’s balcony faces an ancient coliseum, a busy highway, and a religious institution. Jep lives at the crossway of different kinds of lives; and his own life could be lived only in a great city. Jep goes to a performance event: a naked woman, with her head lightly veiled and a red Communist flag painted onto her crotch, makes a few comments and runs head first into a stone wall. Jep interviews the performance artist, whose commentary is full of aesthetic and personal banalities that Jep waves away, wanting her to be precise about what she is doing and why. Jep is efficient, shrewd, at his work, and yet lazy (lazy may not even be the right word: he does not want to make a certain kind of effort, one that may be false or portentous or strenuous); and Jep does not want to do the interview book that a loyal friend and admirer, a playwright, Romano (Carlo Verdone), has proposed: Jep knows the limitations of the cultural scene he is in, but Jep is no longer interested in trying to add anything significantly new to it. His life is comfortable and safe—and a pleasure. It has a certain grace. Yet, it is enviable rather than admirable.

Jep has a casual sexual encounter with an attractive, admiring, rich and charming woman who is somewhat self-involved; and he leaves soon after (rather than stay to see her selfies, the self-portraits taken with her cell phone camera that she has put in a large scrapbook, as well as on the social media site Facebook). Jep walks and recalls his youthful social ambitions—which he has achieved. He soon receives a visit from the husband of his long ago summer love, Elisa; and the grieving man, Alfredo (Luciano Virgillo), tells Jep that Elisa has died and that she had loved Jep (despite her thirty-five years of marriage, Elisa thought of her husband as being merely a good companion). Jep is saddened, but his bustling social life continues. At a gathering of his friends, one woman, Stefania (or Stefa), talks about lives that are worth living and those that are not. Stefa (Galatea Ranzi) talks about her political work, her civic vocation and political novels; and Jep says that her vociferous declarations cover personal vulnerabilities. Stefa insists that he specify what he suggests; and despite his own hesitance and the wariness of their surrounding friends Jep does: her husband is in love with someone else, her children are neglected, and her didactic work has little appreciation or effect. Jep tells Stefa that rather than contempt for others she should have affection: all of their lives are less than they would want. It is an accurate, bracing honesty: Our pride is often mingled with our pain. Our compassion is often limited or enlarged by our determination to achieve some measure of self-discipline.

Jep visits the nightclub, once owned, but now merely managed, by a friend, seventy-years old, a white-haired, talkative and vigorous, self-described heroin junkie, with a beautiful, aging daughter, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), who wants to be a sophisticated stripper—she works to pay for a medical condition. Jep begins a friendship with that daughter, whom he takes to an art party, a party that is at once glamorous and ghastly—containing calculation, snobbery, and genius. A child artist is exploited—she does a kind of improvisational work—splattering whole cans of paint against a large canvas, then spreading her hands through the drippings—work that seems a mess, crying as she does it (the girl wants to be a veterinarian), but as she finishes, something intriguing, even ordered—and possibly beautiful—is revealed in the painting. Jep, at the party, sees a friend who is trusted with the keys to several great houses; and the friend takes Jep and Ramona on a tour of one of them: it is full of great sculpture and paintings and three old princesses playing cards. The visit is a bit like a fairy tale. The Great Beauty again balances the glorious with ordinary human tragedy: soon, the troubled son of an acquaintance dies, and Jep discusses funerals. He says funerals are a kind of theater—but, once there, at the young man’s funeral, Jep finds himself in shattering sorrow. Subsequently, at the garden party celebrating a wedding Jep tries to ask a church elder, a cardinal, spiritual questions, but the cardinal only wants to discuss gourmet recipes (it seems both absurdity and genuine social observation of how people with authority sometimes do not have the commitment or depth one expects).

However, the film does contain one remarkably sincere person: a nun who does work in Africa, an old woman who is considered a saint. The nun, Sister Maria (Giusi Merli), visits Rome; and Jep’s editor arranges a dinner and plans for an interview. The withered woman had liked Jep’s novel; and the dinner is at Jep’s apartment—but there, her attendants speak for her and decline the interview. Yet, the nun and Jep do speak; and Sister Maria asks him why he did not write another book, and she reminds him of the importance of roots, of roots of different kinds. The saint climbs the steps of a great sanctuary on her knees, exemplifying discipline and faith. Jep, on a yacht trip, remembers the erotic promise of his young summer love; and, anticipating death, he seems, in his memory of the past, of his roots, to discover renewed inspiration.

The Great Beauty is not likely for everyone’s taste. It has a great sense of humor but assumes a serious respect for culture. It is thoughtful and lovely. Its production designer is Stefania Cella, and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, and editor Cristiano Travaglioli. It may be a great film. I could be wrong, of course, but I think that Susan Sontag would love The Great Beauty, for its beauty and sophistication and summation of cultural attainment. I do not know if Pauline Kael would: Kael might appreciate the lightness of the lead actor’s performance, some of the conversational wit, and the sites shown, but she also might see this as one of those sick soul of Europe exhibitions. (There is a scene of a Jep looking into a passing limousine and seeing the face of a beautiful tormented woman.) I have read some of the reviews, which have been mostly good, but I have been surprised by how many details they get wrong (misidentifying someone’s class background or current occupation, for two instances)—although there is so much in the film, that confusion is understandable.

“With The Great Beauty, Mr. Sorrentino has not only returned to Italy, he has also taken on its past and how it weighs on the present and future,” wrote film critic Manohla Dargis in the November 14, 2013 New York Times, before stating that the film is “a wildly inventive and sometimes thrilling ode to sensibility and to some of its linguistic cousins, like sensation, sensitivity and sentiment. Structured as a series of loosely connected episodes, the peripatetic story comes into focus soon after Jep’s birthday, when he learns that his first love, an enigmatic blonde who smiles at him in his memories of a seaside idyll, has died. Her husband breaks the bad news to Jep, and together they weep, an emotional torrent which—in an elegiac illustration of Mr. Sorrentino’s associative method—initially evokes Jep’s memories of the dead woman, whom he watches while swimming, and then comes to a watery culmination with the men embracing in a hard rain.” With reference to Walter Benjamin’s comments on the flaneur, and on walking and watching in great cities, and also Italian politics, Dargis’ commentary is one of the better ones. Some of the reviews seemed impatient with the display of sophistication, aesthetic or personal; and failed to register the film’s resonant depth—whether of cultural dissatisfaction, personal disappointment, or grief. “Jep’s nascent melancholy deepens when he’s visited by a stranger named Alfredo. He’s the husband of Jep’s first love, and he reports that she has died. Opening her private diary after her death, Alfredo learned that she remained in love with Jep her whole life, despite the fact that she, not Jep, broke things off,” observes John Defore in the November 27, 2013 Washington Post. Alfredo and Elisa had no children. Jep could father children, Alfredo could not: Jep can consider what might have been, and the imperfection of all lives. “The Great Beauty is too sophisticated a film to have Jep dissolve in a welter of regret. Immaculately turned out in a series of custom tailored suits and dazzling sports coats, Jep continues to experience the pull of his accustomed world, but he starts to feel as well that he no longer wants to do things he doesn’t want to do,” noted Kenneth Turan in the November 21, 2013 Los Angeles Times, finding the film seductive, stunning.

When the saint asked Jep why he had not written another book, Jep said that he was looking for the great beauty. The great beauty might have been a woman, but, more likely, it was the sublime. The sublime can be revealed in art or love, in a person or an act, in a work of man or woman, such as architecture or charity: the sublime is essence and exemplar, idea and ideal, the beauty, order, and reason suffusing existence, the purpose of existence, the justification of exhaustion, the source of refreshment, the thing that inspires and redeems suffering, the light that vanquishes darkness, the joy that heals, the glimpse of beginnings and creation and growth and renewal that makes death acceptable, the great solace, the good, the right, and the true, the final illumination. Jep was open to almost everything: he was open to life—and in a way, he intuited the sublime. It was there in his life: he had only to remember it, to recognize it.

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 21, Issue 8 / August 2017 Film Reviews   art cinema   cinema of decadence   italian cinema   paolo sorrentino   toni servillo