“I think that the way animals live in the tropics, stepping outside in the morning and evening to see if there is something to eat, and taking a long nap in the afternoon, must be a wonderful life.”
– Masanobu Fukuoaka
The Great Beauty begins with a truly ridiculous happening. A group of tourists are gathered at the Janiculum, enjoying the sights and splendour of Rome from afar, when a Japanese tourist suddenly dies. No explanation is given, but we are meant to consider the idea that he has been merely overcome by the beauty. The city has, literally, killed him. From this less than subtle opening you can get a grasp of Sorrentino’s intentions: The Great Beauty is bombast, sensory overload on a grand scale. Yet it is also a quiet meditation on the need to find some form of closure at a certain point in life, before death hits, or the thrombosis of death, at least.
Jep Gambardella is old. He wrote a novel once, but never started another. The city stood in his way. He parties, and sleeps in the sunshine. He knows everybody there is to know in Rome. He eviscerates his friends, dissecting their frivolities and pretensions, because they believe that they have grasped something where there is nothing to grasp. He wonders about life and death and he wanders the city, filled with spirituality and the flesh. He does not talk like a writer. He calls his housekeeper a ‘reprobate’. He fucks his way through beautiful women, but does not wait around to see their naked selfies. His existence is a kind of post-fuck love affair between man and city. They are both dying, in their own way, and are each living a last gasp of euphoria in each other’s company, still entwined in sodden bedsheets.
Rome is a old, a cinematic city. Sorrentino’s film is only the latest in a long tradition of films which posit the city as main character. But the only difference between this and Open City are the invaders. The Fascists are long dead, but Rome is still in the grip of the meaningless and the depraved. We are in the company of the dead, mostly, or the rich, which is the same thing. Jep is our spiritual guide, though he doesn’t know what to make of anything, or how his wanderings can bring anything like an epiphany. “Things are too complicated for one person to understand,” he intones to the mentally-ill son of a friend, who replies: “Just because you don’t, doesn’t mean no one can…” He tries to confess his fears to a priest, a former exorcist, who is too busy dispensing cookery advice. He tries a new romance, but nobody is interesting enough. Nothing can fill him except the city. Things are going terribly, but he always has a quip and a smile.
Yet the beauty is everywhere apparent, not ‘great’, but hidden, waiting. Jep begins to glimpse it, and to remember beauties long gone, disappeared. He takes a journey into the heart of an older Rome, accompanied by a key-holder, a man who can be trusted to guard these forgotten secrets. The forms of beauty, of music, art, sculpture, poetry, religion, and finally of nature, are revealed to Jep, as if to a schoolchild. The ways in which beauty can be represented emerge, as if from the waves, or like survivors from a shipwreck. Tiny moments press in upon him. A giraffe vanishes, but it is only a trick. Two lovers kiss for days, without taking breath. He breaks down at a funeral. He remembers his first sexual encounter and decides that he will write again.
Yet writing, creativity, cinema, art, is only another kind of trick, like a disappearing giraffe, or an endless party. We cannot represent that which cannot be represented. We can only overcome the barriers in ourselves that prevent us from believing in the trick. That is the true essence of art: it is a kind of fabrication, one that can only be practised and indulged by those willing to lie to themselves.