The VaticanArt Reviews and Commentary

La Grande Bellezza

I’ve had the pleasure of watching La Grande Bellezza without first having seen La Notte by Michelangelo Antonioni or La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini. Indeed, I watched these latter movies, masterpieces on their own, after I saw La Grande Bellezza five times. In total however, over a span of four years, I’ve watched Paolo Sorrentino’s ninth featured film eleven times.

It is without question one of my all-time favourite movies, right at the top with Schindler’s List, Interstellar and Into the Wild. All of these screened stories tell us something about ourselves as human beings, but I haven’t watched these other movies as often as I did watch Sorrentino’s “great beauty”.

Source: The Great Beauty, Told by Director of Photography Luca Bigazzi

The Review

The movie, filmed entirely in summer, starts with a reminder about what we all, regardless of where we are in the world, seem to have lost: perspective.

A cannon fire announces that “Rome is dead”. The scene then drives this point home with an Italian who is washing off his sweat in one of the city’s historical fountains while a group of tourists – the most unwanted, unloved and annoying type of people for those who live in the Eternal City – cannot get enough of the beauty of Rome. Indeed, the action of the film begins as a tourist dies of Stendhal syndrome as he is exposed to so much amazing scenery that his mind and heart cannot process it and give up. This is, in my view, a statement that the world is beautiful, but we have become blind and numb to its radiance.

Source: The Great Beauty, Told by Director of Photography Luca Bigazzi

Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo (with whom Sorrentino now had a longstanding collaboration which would continue in the future), is a writer and the main protagonist, who takes us through the lavish nightlife of Rome. Jep is a complex character – a man celebrating his 65th birthday with a [private] party screaming for paparazzi attention, he makes his entrance in the movie with a monologue that was designed to highlight his (self)-tortured soul:

“To this question, as kids, my friends always gave the same answer…”pussy”.

Whereas I answered…”the smell of old people’s houses”.

The question was: “What do you like most, really, in life?”

I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.”

Jep is a hopeless (not helpless) romantic. Most of us are such romantics from time to time – I am one, after I drink too much or get high on the right stuff. Usually however, I’m just hopeless. But not Servillo’s character. He manages somehow to walk us through the chaotic and devilishly appealing night life of Rome in a perfectly balanced act: Jep maintains his romantic, aesthetic aroma which is continuously enhanced by the architectural splendour of the place and elevated by the soundtracks, while also dipping from time to time in that ever-present melancholy, which forms in all of us due to successes and failures that we keep as memories which form the foundation of who we are today.

For example, Jep’s book – The Human Apparatus – was an irredeemable success: it put his name on the list of Rome’s high society, opening the doors to the lavish life he always wanted. But, at the same time, this road to fame and status as a “successful writer” condemned him to never write a novel again, like a twisted Faustian deal. This book was simply too good (or at least that was what Jep and his friends believed).

“The most important thing I discovered a few days after turning 65 is that I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.

When I came to Rome, at the age of 26, I fell pretty swiftly, almost without realizing it, into what might be defined as the whirlpool of the high life.

But I didn’t just want to live the high life. I wanted to be the king of the high life. And I succeeded.

I didn’t just want to go to parties. I wanted to have the power to make them a  failure.”

Now, about 40 years later since Jep wrote The Human Appartus, during a time he was enamoured with his first love, Elisa, he finds himself at a crossroads of regrets fuelled by unfulfilled potential and unmet love, which too often have been treated with one-night flings, drugs and empty intellectual debates. Already sounds too familiar, doesn’t it?

It is this character that is our guide in La Grande Belleza. His circle of friends, all working in the media or arts “industries” share similar character traits and lifestyles: financially successful, more or less (some very much less) creative but with their lives in tatters. This is exemplified in a number of scenes but probably is best highlighted by the “rooftop” dialogues.

During these 6 minutes, Jep’s close group of friends are sitting under the night sky in his apartment’s balcony, dressed in colours and fabrics that please the eye and the heart, in a discussion which starts with Stefania’s complaint that “[…]this generation of youths horrifies me. Supported by this state for years, when they realise they’re smart, they go study or work in America or London, forgetting about the support. They have no civil vocation. As a young girl, in the occupied arts department, I oozed civil vocation.”

These proclamations stir a debate which highlights the fragility of these [more or less] successful people. Behind their beautiful clothes, expensive homes, elegant drinks and intellectualised vocabulary hide insecurities, lies, regrets, neglect and a sense of victimisation and entitlement. A grave mistake is to take this scene as a judgment on “the rich” – that would be treasonous to the spirit of this movie which provides mirrors for all our souls: these fragilities are in us all and, just like these characters, we too hide them in pretentious looking and noisy masquerades. But we know that they are there, oh yes, we know.

Every scene is masterfully done – a testament to Luca Bigazzi’s skills and professionalism which, as always, shines throughout the entire movie. If you want to read more about the techniques used and the thinking process behind the lightening, photography and overall cinematography of La Grande Bellezza, I recommend you read Alberto Spadafora’s book: The Great Beauty, Told by Director of Photography Luca Bigazzi. It is quite something that the inspiration for the shots was taken from a single picture of the Imperial Fora at sunrise that Sorrentino showed Bigazzi before starting shooting. This is the true power of creativity on full display.

I want to go over a few scenes, which have had an important impact on my view of art, life and human relationships.

Let’s start with probably the most iconic bits of the film: the parties. Instead of focusing on one at the beginning of the movie in which we see Jep’s celebrating his 65th birthday, I want to discuss the “other” party, which Jep attends with Ramona who is a stripper (I guess?) in maybe her late  40s. They are at the house of a famous art collector who, let’s say cares more about a guy dressed like a sultan throwing knives at a lady dressed like a sultan then his kids whom he treats like tools.

But this isn’t why this scene stands out for me. Nor is the brilliantly crafted dialogue that reveals just enough about the people present at the party for one to question certain life pleasures, or the intense moments when a child, furious and neglected releases her emotions on a massive canvas in waves of colourful paint, turning what initially looked like anger and sadness into a calm and harmonious masterpiece.

Rather, it is the quiet part of this fiesta that stays with me. Jep knows Stefano who is a friend of the Princesses and who has the keys to Rome’s most beautiful buildings. And so, Jep and Ramona go on a journey amongst the artwork, royal jewellery and eternal statues – the true treasure of the City, hidden away from hedonism and the modern barbarism of today’s Rome (which might as well have been any other today’s society in general). The elegancy of this short journey is done with such care and perfectly placed lights that one forgets about the “true message” and gets lost in the quietness and stillness of time.

This is a world hidden from the outside eyes, away from noise and pollution. Among these beauties, the Princesses are playing cards and smoking cigarettes under a lamp. Jep casually salutes them as he passes by and they return the “bona sera”, highlighting just how high up in the “high society” Jep climbed. There is mystery and the question of lost perspective, which again are reminders of what we’ve lost. We seem to have everything and yet we have nothing that matters.

The next scene I want to highlight is the funeral of Andrea, the son of Viola (a wealthy woman who is part of Jep’s close group of friends). Andrea is different – the line between genius and insanity is a faint one; too faint to be seen. His troubles eventually lead Andrea to commit suicide. The funeral scene is not just in the church: this is a deeply ancient ritual which begs preparations. Indeed, what stands out, to me, is Jep’s monologue to Ramona about the appropriate conduit at a funeral: even when encountering the only thing that never discriminates – death – we (people) have made rules as if they really matter.

The other aspect which makes this scene memorable is the contrast in aesthetics. Death is usually perceived as a tragic event (although I’d argue it is better to view it as a liberating event), but the preparation with meeting this supposed tragedy is done in colourful, elegant clothes which seem almost like a defiant, final move that life makes before death, inevitably ending anyway. A laugh which echoes with silence.

Now we turn to my favorite scene, which a friend of mine, who probably has more sensibility than me to resonate with such moments, described it to me as “just a fantasy that lasts for a moment before vanishing in reality”. This is it – the essence of La Grande Bellezza: the contrast between living through stories and living through “activities” as put by Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science at London School of Economics.

The scene I am talking about is when Jep and Ramona are discussing their first time they had sex. Ramona’s story is funny in itself but lacks everything else: excitement, vitality, colour, love and it is memorable only because it is her first time. “This is what reality is”, I am being told: dull, simple, common, clumsy, meaningless and we remember it only because it is what’s real. In contrast, Jep’s first time is the complete opposite: it’s not funny but it has everything else; indeed, it has so much emotional charge that he even finds it difficult to finish remembering it in its entirety.

I never truly believed in what’s real – in the given world. And I don’t think I will ever believe in it.

There are other scenes which, although I won’t discuss in too much detail, are worthy of mentioning. One of them is the dinner with the Cardinal. This man of tremendous spiritual and political influence is portrayed as, what I believe to be, a pagan – he couldn’t care less about the God he proclaims to serve; indeed, the Cardinal seems to be in the wrong “business” altogether: he ought to have been a chef. Another scene is the ending, which brings all of this together. La Grande Bellezza is told through scenes that vaguely connect with each other, but the ending provides the glue that ties all of them into one big picture.

Sex plays an important role in the movie, just like it does in our lives – but it is not a politically charged and vulgar tool that aims to send “a message”; instead, it is a tastefully built medium through which pain and pleasure, tragedy and fulfilment intersect. There are no reasons for us to be ashamed of our sexuality, not only of whom we like but also of what we like. Taboos isolate. Dogmas scar. Morals dehumanise. In La Grande Belleza, these barriers do not exist as strong as they are in the sanctimonious “real world”.

Death and decay are present throughout the movie as well. Jep is 65. The end is near: people he knew, some younger than him, are dying throughout the film. However, death is a messenger here. It says: “you are wasting time pretending”. We are, aren’t we?

Regardless of what theme or scene one engages with, there is a common element in all of them: beauty. Even in decadence, monotony, drugs and parties provided as cure for a meaningless life, there is beauty – but we often don’t see it. There is beauty in nature. There is beauty in what we do. There is beauty in us.

One could not write a review about this film without touching its aesthetics and music. Let’s start with the first one. There is one word that can describe the aesthetics of La Grande Bellezza: perfect. I could write 20 pages or more only on the costumes used. The film’s costume designer, Daniela Ciancio, did a brilliant job – in an interview with Esquire, Daniela stated: “Jep is an old-fashioned man alive today who is surrounded by a world that has lost a certain elegance.” However, it isn’t just about what the characters wear but the great atmosphere and surroundings.

Meanwhile, its music provides soul to its aesthetics. “My Heart’s in the Highlands” by Arvo Pärt and “The Lamb” by John Tavener and William Blake are by far, in my opinion, the two pieces of music that elevate the entire experience of La Grande Bellezza. Of course, all other soundtracks fit perfectly but the subtleness of these two in particular is what makes certain scenes so memorable. Music in general, not just in movies, is the most potent form of communication – words and images are substantially weaker on their own.

I said at the beginning that I am grateful for seeing this movie before watching La Notte and La Dolce Vitta and the main reason for that is that one maintains innocent eyes, not guilty of critical thinking that disturbs and dissects. What all the criticisms which point that La Grande Bellezza copies these previous two movies (which discuss similar topics) fail to acknowledge is that human society is cyclical in its behaviour and fate: every generation is born blind, grows up with lies and hope and then dies in regret. This is why Sorrentino’s film echoes the past ones – because our lives echo the past.

This isn’t just a movie about art, deep meaning or Rome, it’s not a story about decay and self-loathing and it’s not just a political discourse. La Grande Bellezza is a lesson about what it means to be human. A lesson told with elegance, understanding, melancholy, love, tragedy, wit and, above all, beauty.

“This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah.

It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise.

Silence and sentiment.

Emotion and fear.

The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity.

All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world.

Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don’t deal with what lies beyond.

Therefore…let this novel begin.

After all… it’s just a trick. Yes, it’s just a trick.”

Disclamier: I do not own the rights to any of these images or music.

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