The Great Beauty, La Grande Bellezza, Paolo Sorrentino’s film about the ageing writer, bon vivant and Roman socialite Jep Gambardella is visually a feast for the eyes. Called by some a sequel to Federico Fellini ‘s film “La Dolce Vita ” ( 1960) director Paolo Sorrentino mixes the sacred and the profane in an attempt to represent in a cynic and at the same time ironic way the vices and the virtues of Italian high society.
La Grande Bellezza is the Italian candidate for the Oscars 2014 and one can understand why. Jep Gambardella is the enchanting star of this two and a half hours movie epic that uses Rome as its grand stage. Rome is as much part of the film as the narrative of protagonist Jeb’s hedonistic life in Rome’s upper classes. Since the legendary success of his first and only novel, “L’apparato umano – The Human apparatus”, Jep has been a permanent fixture in the Rome’s literary and social circles on which he comments with a mixture of smug cynicism and irony while the camera simultaneously captures the eternal beauty of Rome.
At 65 Jep is still the leader of the pack peppered with elegant dilatants, a sad, but on first sight perfect, ensemble of friends and acquaintances, who celebrate beauty in order to suppress the noise, emptiness and vulgarity of their lives. “It’s all settled under the chatter and noise, the silence and the feeling, emotion and fear, the sparse inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor of a miserable man.”
Jep has reached a point in his life when he’s beginning to mourn lost opportunities, even more after a visit of the widower of his first love. The scene with is teenage love on a steep sea cliff catapults many memories into the present. The pain of the loss of beauty, or the passion that is necessary to feel life, that feeling is universal, present and can’t be replaced by the mundane.
“As a child, someone asks you: What do you really like most in life? I just said the smell of an old people’s home. I was sentenced to sensitivity! I was destined to become a writer! I was destined to become Jep Gambardella! I did not simply want to be a mundane; I wanted to become the king of the mundane. I just did not want to participate in the festivities; I wanted to have the power to make them fail!” There you have it.
The movie journey begins with a shot on Gianicolo (or Janiculum) hill: the camera traces the sky and starts to frame statues, people with newspapers and tourists photographing. What’s new one would say, until one tourist parts from the group. Eagerly taking photographs of the Roman skyline he suddenly drops dead on the cobble pavement, having seemingly overdosed on the sheer splendour of Rome.
At the end of a movie a bittersweet certainty meanders with us along the river Tiber. There is no music, time stops and everything is beautiful. When death surrounds us the beauty of memories makes life simpler. It is impossible to not find beauty, regardless of what life you have lived. “It all ends with the death. First, however, there was life, hidden from bla bla bla …” protagonist Jep Gambardella remarks in the movie. La grande bellezza – The great beauty is everywhere, but always comes unexpectedly, almost in disguise, “to make your heart burst, your mind swim and your soul scream” as one of my friends said when the screen went dark.