I. The First Beauty
Rome is the first (and perhaps the only) Beauty in La Grande Bellezza. Artists, editors, mobsters, magicians, and businessmen are drawn to its splendor and immortality. Classical ruins only become more beautiful over time; immortality is beauty. Regret for the past, nostalgia, is beautiful. Rome was not always Italy’s most populated or beloved city; during most of the medieval and early Renaissance, Florence and Venice drew the crowds. But it has eternally signified something beyond its classical architecture and retained its allure through the ages. Thus Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi give us a view of Rome that shines even without daylight. Rome as the Eternal and the Nocturnal City (remember La Dolce Vita?) Villa Medici at night is lush and paradisical, its statues more alive than still. The Palazzo Barberini, former home to the Sforzas and Barberinis, is mystical within as seen by candlelight, almost Venetian in the suggestive mystery of its paintings. And in the final scenes, the Terme di Caracalla are filmed from below, a solemn and majestic idea that perhaps the true greatness of Rome is long past. As the magician Arturo rehearses a set, surrounded by floodlights and scaffolding, we recall 8 1/2’s final scenes and the folly and greatness of artistic endeavor, whether it is architecture, film, or literature.
II. I Write, Therefore I Am, or: Dissipation, Italian-Style
One cannot watch the film’s central character, Jep Gambardella, without thinking of La Notte’s Giovanni Pontano and La Dolce Vita’s Marcello Rubini. All three writers enjoy the metropolitan social life and the dramas of love while retaining a certain seriousness about their work (these multi-taskers’ trick is to stay up at all hours). Life and writing are intertwined. The directors Paolo Sorrentino, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini grant their men a certain amount of dignity and elan even as they slowly but surely slide into crises of writing, of love, of life, and of mortality. The directors have a great deal of sympathy (and I dare say, empathy) for elegant dissipation while keeping a certain artistic rigor. Like La Notte’s Giovanni, Jep retains certain journalistic standards though his playmates may have the impression that he’ll write about anything trendy, titillating, or profitable (there’s a very funny scene with a performance artist’s so-called vibrazione). Like Marcello, Jep takes the time to get to know the celebrities and glitterati of the future while at the same time respecting the high standards of the past. Proustian-length meditations on the past, youth, beauty, death, mortality, and of course, the meaning of life punctuate and enhance parties, weddings, meetings with editors, pre-coital encounters. Dissipation Italian-Style.
III. My Heart’s in the Highlands…
The first song of the stunning film soundtrack is David Lang’s “I Lie.” Further on, Arvo Pärt’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” is heard over a scene of play. These two songs about longing and waiting anticipate the manifold searches for the Great Beauty. In the film, the search is not limited to Jep…all the Romans seek some sort of peace and salvation through beauty…some find it, and some don’t. Notable is the film’s first big party, to celebrate Jep’s birthday. This party and the subsequent parties we follow are full of beauty: beautiful women, pulsating music, chic fashion, the best in art, the newest performances. But beauty, alas, is fleeting, dependent on a variety of factors and actors, a play whose curtain closes, even if at 5:00 in the morning. The after-party feel is melancholy, empty, as though beauty has taken all the vitality out of its goers. Gatsby would feel right at home. And so the search for salvation continues. The corrupt art dealer forces beauty out of his young innocent daughter by making her perform painting in front of hundreds of guests against her will. For the Cardinal, beauty is in the perfect recipe, even at the expense of his flock’s dwindling faith. For the tourists, it is Roman architecture, whose majesty gives someone a heart attack. For the tragic Ramona, the ultimate beauty is literally a salvation: a cure for her illness. For many Romans, it is a celebrity Botox specialist (one of the best scenes in the film). Poignantly, for Jep, the great beauty might be his first (and now dead) love. The quest for the great beauty is not much more than the search to be saved from irrelevancy, heartbreak, death, and decay. And slowly we realize that this quest may end up somewhere other than Rome. The playwright, ironically named Romano, leaves Rome entirely to go back to his hometown, as his decades-long search for the Great Beauty is futile. Andrea commits suicide. Jep’s mysterious neighbor ends up in jail. And so, at film’s end, Jep realizes, peacefully, that though it all ends in death, the “haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty” gives life its life. And so his new novel begins.
La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), dir. Paolo Sorrentino 142 mins. Indigo Film, et al., 2013.
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