Roots Are Important: The Great Beauty – a movie review
Just over half a century ago I saw Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – The Good Life. Last night we saw its contemporary total remake written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty. Fellini’s film was about the amoral life of a dissolute pack of Italians set in Rome. Sorrentino’s film is about a dissolute pack of Italians set in Rome. Fellini’s film followed one week in Rome in the life of a journalist who wrote for a gossip magazine, Marcello Rubini, played by the masterful Marcello Mastroianni. I could not tell what period was covered in Sorrentino’s tale of a one-book novelist, Toni Servillo, played by Jep Gambardella. He wrote a highly regarded novel in his twenties, The Human Apparatus – I’m not sure what the title was intended to convey – but never repeated that achievement and went on to become a writer who publishes celebrity interviews in a periodical edited by a cynical dwarf with a three foot interpretation of the world.
The Great Beauty could have taken place over a week packed with frenzy and inanity. and portrayed in a melange of sound and imagery interspersed with biting dialogue. Whatever the period, the film is absolutely gorgeous, absolutely mesmerizing and I absolutely have to see it again for it was too packed with beauty for my feeble mind to retain even a small portion of the fabulous shots that were transfixing even when the images were of aging and world-weary sybarites. The cinematography by Luca Bigazzi is outstanding and deserved more awards than the Silver Ribbon, the Italian Golden Globe and the Chlotrudis. No written review can spoil this film. One of the most intriguing shots taken before dawn is of a series of unfinished and discarded drinks along the balustrade of the balcony against the skyline of Rome after the revellers have gone home. We end up at the end of the film as intoxicated by the visuals as the celebrants who have left the scene.
In Fellini’s movie, the journalist is explicitly searching for love and happiness. In Sorrentino’s film, the journalist has given up on any search for meaning in life at all. He is obviously at his end, for a man who is an expert in the proper conduct appropriate to the life of a libertine living in the luxury of high society with his beatific and sly smile who insists that it is absolutely improper to weep at a funeral lest you distract from the focus on the family, breaks the code and weeps as he carries the coffin of an ex-girlfriend. One presumes he is weeping more for himself than a past love. We are offered the cynical misanthropic perspective of the best dressed and best looking beautifully winkled tanned face of a sixty-five year old dapper hedonist you will ever see in a film against a background of throbbing music, a munificence of gyrations and endless drinks and cigarettes. Virtually all! For you do get glimpses of a search for spiritual meaning in The Great Beauty, a film that won the Golden Globe and an Oscar for best foreign film as well as many other prizes. Fellini’s movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960.
Like Fellini’s film, the score of The Great Beauty is absolutely magnificent and is divided with helter-skelter pacing into a long ten minute prologue, a series of episodes – I lost count of whether there was one per day as in Fellini’s film but assume there were seven as well – and an epilogue. Fellini’s film starts with that immemorial, classic and absolutely unforgettable long scene of a helicopter carrying a huge statue of Jesus Christ over the old Roman ruins of an aqueduct into the city and from which we get glimpses of tanned Roman beauties sunbathing on roof tops in bikini bottoms in juxtaposition to the chalk-coloured statue. Throughout The Great Beauty, the marble statues and exquisite portraits stand in radical contrast to the apparently vibrant flesh of luxuriant life captivated by the impermanent and trapped by their need of posturing as they live on the brink of despair. In the prologue of The Great Beauty we are taken on a tour, not of Rome, but of tourists in Rome, and end up focusing on a middle-aged Japanese tourist who, while taking photographs of Rome, falls dead presumably totally overwhelmed by the beauty.
In the first episode in The Great Beauty, we look down from the huge balcony of a gorgeous Rome apartment opposite the ruins of the Roman Coliseum. The truly madding crowd is celebrating Tony Servillo as Jeb Gambardella at his sixty-fifth birthday party in abandonment and revelry in an orgy of dancing to a pulsating beat. Thus, we know from the very beginning that we are being offered a rear rather than forward view, and one seen from a bacchanalia. From this Dionysian saturnalia we observe we observe the destructive wear of beauty looking at death rather than the perspective of a youthful search for the good life from a young frenzied quest for pleasure as in Fellini.
Even more than Fellini’s film, The Great Beauty is an exquisite frame-by-frame ode to beauty that is absolutely ravishing and intentionally seductive. In this magnificent film, what seduces is not the fleshpots but the visual sensibility, not what one does but what one sees, particularly the imaginative scene of Jeb’s ceiling and the ripples of water that allows the imagination to take one on a tour of beauty without ever going anywhere. As Jeb remarks later in the film, Rome has the best dancing trains in the world because they never go anywhere.
One major reason is nostalgia and its accompanying sense of melancholy, sadness and loss. For Jeb is stuck with his eighteen year old vision of a twenty-year old beauty from his past, an enchantment that he has never since been able to rediscover or replicate though he has spent his whole life in search of la grande bellazza. Instead, what he reports on and entertains his friends with are acerbic witty and very sharp and accurate verbal quips and stories about hypocrisy and triviality masquerading as enormously important contributions. The most telling scene in this mode is when, seated with his friends, he tells an aging writer boasting of her eleven books and dedication to the communist party as well as her three children what he thinks of her after she pushes him to say what is on his mind. He exposes her as having a ream of servants, was only published by a small irrelevant press subsidized by the communist party and never had time for her own children. The scene is as cutting up of another human being as I have ever seen.
But there are comic versions as well – none better than the aged peacock of a cardinal caught up in a love affair with his own voice who entertains others by offering them recipes about how to prepare a gourmet pan-fried duck dinner but is easily distracted and has no time to give Jeb spiritual advice. The living church is seen as even more decadent than the high life and certainly at odds with its high calling. These are but two examples of the parade of grotesque fools and moving sarcophagi whose flesh and sensibilities have been eaten away by the botox masks they have taken to wearing and that include not only pseudo communists and chefs masquerading as religious leaders, but an array of these characters including a toy salesmen obsessed, not with the openness of play but with the closed and repetitive world of the game of seduction. Another is the millionaire pre-teen female abstract painter who in a fit and tantrum creates great works of art by throwing cans of paint at a canvas and immersing herself in smearing the paint around. When the doctor enters with his aides to sell botox injections at 700 to 1200 lira or Euro a pop – I could not tell which currency was being used – the audience become witness to the ultimate in the ridiculous lives of these narcissistic aristocrats and plebeian bourgeoisie, at least until the down-to-earth stripper, Romana, enters the scene, who, with all of her personal neurosis, looks strikingly normal compared to the vapid wastrels surrounding Jeb.
The Great Beauty is explicitly and overtly an echo of Fellini’s classic and no viewer who goes to see The Great Beauty can help but recall La Dolce Vita. Perhaps it is because the film is seen as through a rear view mirror that eternal Rome will, I contend, never look more beautiful. For it is really Rome itself that is the great beauty that seduces Jeb to spend his whole dissolute life in the avoidance of commitment in a successful quest to be the central hero of the high night life of the indulgent rich of Rome. Fellini’s film has been remade from the perspective of the Berlusconi era.
The difference between the two films is evident in the contrast with the first scene of La Dolce Vita. Marcello Mastrioanni in his endless pursuit of heaven through physical sensuality makes love to Maddalena played by Anouk Aimée in the bedroom of a prostitute. Marcello Rubini is in search of heaven but is really immersed in hell of the repetitious meaningless quest for exquisite pleasure, its hellish quality clearly evident when he returns to his own apartment to find that his fiancée, played by Yvonne Furneaux has tried to kill herself by overdosing on drugs. While he waits in the recovery room, Marcello Mastrioanni tries to reach Maddalena.
In The Great Beauty, the parallel scene comes a little later in the film when Jeb meets Ramona played by Sabrina Ferilli, the forty-two year old daughter of a very old friend who he had not seen for a very long time and who has been reduced from an owner of a nightclub to a manager obsessed with finding a husband for his stripper daughter. When the two meet, Jeb assures her that he is only looking to talk and when the two wake up the next morning in bed together, Jeb pronounces how wonderful it was to sleep together without needing to have sex. For it is the sensibility that she arouses in him, not the physical sensuality that she tries to arouse with her strip tease. sensibility not sensuousness is what really entrances him. But like her half century earlier predecessor, Romana spends all her money on drugs in the fruitless attempt to “cure” herself with an even more devastating result.
As in La Dolce Vita, Jeb has an assignment to get an interview, but it is not with a a film star, Anita Ekburg as Sylvia, whom he takes for a tour of St. Peter’s, but with an old 104-year-old crone, a Theresa-like saint of the church for whom “roots are important” and that is why she only lives by eating roots. The scene of this wizened old hag crawling painfully up the steps of St. Peter’s is as memorable as the tense grasping of the arms of your seat scene of the baby in its carriage careening down the long flight of wide steps of Odessa after the mother is shot and presumably killed by a volley from the line of soldiers advancing to break up a demonstration in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin.
But the most beautiful and most memorable scene for me in the whole film takes place when Jeb gets a young, handsome but crippled friend who has an in with the rich princesses of Rome and is a guardian of a case of keys which can unlock the doors of all the buildings that house the beautiful and ancient artistic sculptures and paintings of Rome. Jeb takes Ramona on a night tour and never has the beauty of these works of art, especially the marble statutes, been revealed in all their magnificence.
The view of a breathtaking succession of images is always enhanced by the chorus, whether it be ancient wonderful choral music or modern pop. Real decay is portrayed as beautiful while contemporary decadence is revealed in all its ugliness. The juxtaposition of the ephemeral beauty of the aging rich with the eternal beauty of Rome makes both far more vivid. Jeb’s friend and comically portrayed sidekick, Romano played by Carlo Verdone, who is trapped in a relationship of unrequited love for an aging actress and would-be writer as well as his own quest for dramatic expression on the stage, finally turns his back on the seductions of Rome and returns home. Is that where Jeb is heading when the imaginative sea on the ceiling of his apartment becomes the real sea beneath him as he is seen on a boat presumably heading for home at last?
Has he heard his Mother Theresa’s message?