Whether he is walking down a cobble stoned street, dancing to pulsating electronic music on a rooftop into the morning, or staring up at the ceiling, imagining it as a cool expanse of ocean. Jep Gambardella, played by Tony Servillo, is a ghost of a former era, a notion of ‘coolness’ that was born in the ecstatic and romanticized culture of wealth in the 1920s, and was celebrated in the visionary film 8 1/2 by Frederico Fellini. Now, 50 years later, Paolo Sorrentino’s gorgeous and visually-stimulating film The Great Beauty casts us back into that aesthetic fantasyland of Italy, where the bright colors of modern and postmodern fashion and art shares the same space as the Acropolis and great marble figures of Italian Golden Ages gone past.
The plot centers around… Plot, what plot? Directly mirroring Fellini’s film, Sorrentino steers us away from plot conflict and traditional narrative structures. He instead focuses the lens on imagery that moves smoothly from Jep’s reality, into his imagination, and back again. The film is about Jep, but it is also about all that which Jep no longer is and asks the question of what Jep will be. Jep brags about how he has risen to the top of Rome’s nightlife. He snidely boasts about the dancing trains at his parties, saying “They’re the best cause they go nowhere.” But there is a great sadness in Jep, a poetic vision of the world around him without the end result, without the poem itself. His celebrity was largely born from a single novel he wrote decades previous, and now, as an old man, he is looking for real meaning in the existential misery that tinges his social life. After delivering a calculated and venomous list of reasons as to why one of his acquaintances is actually a failure, in response to her egotism and self-flattery, Jep sighs, and says to her, “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?”
The beauty of this film is not in its characterization, although Jep is simultaneously antagonizing and adorable, miserable and sympathetic. He also tries desperately to cling to his youth and importance investing a lot of time into botox and mocking any youth who claims to have any art experience. Apart from this honest characterization, what is truly beautiful is the imagery that Sorrentino’s film exposes the foreign viewer to. Rome’s beauty is captured in the starched habits of nuns, in the laughter of children, in the towering pillars of ancient buildings, and in the simple pleasure of seeing a giraffe in the Acropolis. Sorrentino’s film eye does not just portray Rome as it is, he portrays it as Jep sees it, a place of a sort of melancholy romance, a place where great mansions still exist, where you can come upon the queen playing cards in a dark den while you’re admiring ancient busts. Rome is elevated in this film to a city almost out of a fairy tale, a fantasy of both decadence and opulence that is reminiscent of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
Juxtaposed with Jep’s notions of beauty are the new movements of art, the contemporary Modernists, including a performance artist who runs headlong (naked) into a granite wall and dyes herself red with her own blood, and a young girl whose parents force her to attack a canvas with buckets of paint, covering herself in the process. Sorrentino’s protagonist is a novelist, Fellini’s is a filmmaker, but both regret always their own silences, their own inability to speak. They muster contempt for the world around them side by side with a disinterest in contributing to it. Fellini’s hero shruggingly notes, “I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say… When did I go wrong?” The irony of a questioning artist as the narrative eye of a film is that we as the audience must then begin to question the film itself. If our narrator is telling us that he’s failed to speak, what then do we ask of the film itself? Doubt and satisfaction in artistic pursuit go hand in hand in both Fellini’s and Sorrentino’s work.
What is beautiful and what is not becomes diluted by Jep’s changing notion of his own life and his own world. But what is genius about Sorrentino’s film is the way it carefully converses with Fellini’s own picture from the past. That the same question can still be asked of society reveals the unique existential crisis: no matter how much we innovate and deliberate and change and progress, we remain plagued by the same intrinsic questions of our own existence. Sorrentino manages in this film to tread the line of being very Fellini-esque but still retaining his own distinctive style. Sorrentino’s film becomes itself a great beauty not because it has a new vision from Fellini’s, but precisely because that vision is exactly the same, and yet still sincerely relevant to society today.
Sorrentino has solidified himself with The Great Beauty as a funny, fresh and complex force in the Italian cinema word.