“La grande bellezza”
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 6.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.
(NEWS: On March 25, 2014, the Criterion Collection will release The Great Beauty on Blu-ray and DVD)
It took a while for me to embrace director Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar winner (Best Foreign Film), but I will explain that a little later.
The film opens with a member of a Japanese group of tourists suddenly dropping dead while beholding the beauty of Rome, then we taken on a Fellini-esque tour of the lives and salons of Rome’s elite. After the tourists’ demise, we find ourselves atop a patio overlooking the Coliseum where an adult birthday party is in progress, the revelers gyrating drunkenly and some dancing in a conga line. It is in honor of the journalist Jep Gambardella, now 65 and thus drawn to thinking more about his life than just seducing as many of the women as are willing—which in his past has been a great many.
Jep, coming to Rome in the 1970s, rose to fame as the author of a novel called The Human Apparatus, which the critics predicted would make him the new voice of his age. However, he had succumbed to Rome’s hedonistic partying and whoring, so no more novels came from his pen—just erudite reviews of the works of others and interviews with celebrities like himself. He had gained popularity, with women more than ready to be seduced by him, but, as we see by his distancing himself from people, he is not thinking of this now. He remarks that he has become what he once looked down upon, a person who is famous merely because he is famous. He says of himself and his friends, “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?”
Later he really starts to wonder about his life when a man married to the girl he had courted decades earlier breaks the news to him that she has died. However, the husband’s sorrow is as much over what he has learned in his wife’s diary as it is for her death. Upon finding and reading it, he tells Jep that he is mentioned just a couple of times, that most of his wife’s private thoughts had been about Jep, regarding him as her true, but lost, love. Flashbacks to those youthful days when Jep and his lover were emerging from their teens.
In the central part of the film the camera follows Jep around the Eternal City, treating us to its fountains and monuments. He starts his day late in the morning when a group of children and their nun teachers are well into their routines. He joins a jaded group at a performance where a naked woman runs and butts her head against the pillar of an ancient aqueduct. At the decadent nightclub of an old friend he meets the owner’s grown daughter Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) whose chief ambition is to continue performing as a pole dancer, even though she has entered her forties. Ramona is attractive, so he takes her to parties, and to bed, for a while.
At another venue a 12 year-old girl screams and grunts her rage as she runs with buckets of paint and splashes a wall with various colors, using her hands and her hair to mix them. The adults stand around and gawk and make bemused comments. At another event a woman agrees to stand against a wall while a knife-thrower tests her nerves by outlining her body with knives.
There are also episodes of visiting some of Rome’s locked shrines at night with a nobleman who is entrusted with the keys to them. One afternoon there is a garden party at which the Cardinal, said to be a shoo-in as the next pope, walks away when Jep tries to ask him a religious question; also, a visit in a vast ruin where a friend is practicing his magic act, making a giraffe disappear. Jep examines a photographer friend’s collection of self-portraits, the walls of the huge room mounted with hundreds of photographs that must tell us something of a man so interested in displaying his own image; more parties, dancing, and flirtations.
By this time I was really resenting that this film was chosen “Best Foreign Film” over what I thought was a far more significant film from a spiritual standpoint, The Hunt. Then the plot turned unexpectedly, showing that this was not just another tale of the decadent rich and the sad state of Roman nobility. It is little wonder that La Dolce Vita is mentioned by everyone reviewing this film, both holding up the hedonistic lifestyle of its characters as empty and void of meaning. However in that earlier film Marcello Mastroianni’s character, though a journalist, is much younger, thus at the early stage in his writing career. His is a life never fulfilled. Jep’s is a life thrown away or squandered after contributing one good thing to the world, his novel. Oddly enough, it is this novel that leads to what might be the jaded Roman’s spiritual rejuvenation. There is a new arrival in Rome that has all of society abuzz. And she is not some gorgeous Hollywood star. She is the wizened 104 year-old Sister Maria, usually referred to as “The Saint” because everyone is convinced that her long selfless work with African children will lead to her canonization. Dadina, the dwarf editor of his magazine, hopes that Jep can score an interview with her, even though she has not granted one in many years.
When they learn that the nun wants to meet him because she had read and liked his novel decades earlier, they are delighted. Arrangements are made for him to host a banquet reception for her at his palatial home. The toothless, dull-eyed old woman sits silent through most of the feast that Jep hosts. Among the guests it is the Cardinal who talks the most, not about religion but about his recipe for Ligurian rabbit stew. When the guest of honor at last speaks, she asks Jep why he did not write another book. Many others had asked him this, but now it seems as much as an indictment as a question. Jep cannot answer.
Jep at last has an epiphany experience with the old saint at dawn on his terrace where a flock of flamingos have landed for a moment. She seems to commune with them. They soon take to flight, winging over the ancient monuments of the city as the dawning sun casts a glow over them. No angels or voices from the sky, nor a sermon or blessing from the old nun. Just the dawn and some beautiful birds, but we sense that this might set Jep off in a new direction. I cannot recall exactly how it was fit in, but there is also a sequence in which Sister Maria slowly, painfully crawls on her knees up the stone steps of the “Scala Sancta.” Reputed to be the staircase from Pontius Pilate’s Praetorium in Jerusalem upon which Jesus had trod during his trial, the steps had been brought to Rome by Emperor Constantine’s mother in the 4th century. Juxtaposed with this spiritual scene is that of Jep’s first sexual encounter with his lost love.
This is a film that you should not be in a hurry to get up and leave at the end. If you do, you will miss a truly beautifully filmed tour of some of the great buildings and old bridges seen from a river barge, a tour that suggests that maybe Jep should look at his life and surroundings from a different perspective. Composer Lele Marchitelli’s haunting music enhances the images, serving as more than just exit music. I still wish the Danish film The Hunt had won the Oscar, but now can readily understand why the Academy members chose otherwise.
The full review with a set of discussion questions will be in the April 2014 issue of Visual Parables.