The Great Beauty aka La Grande Bellezza

They say all roads lead to Rome, and sure enough, a quarter of century ago, I found my self on a road heading into Rome. I was in a taxi heading into town from Fiumicino Airport. I lasted about 4 days in Rome, and between parks, fountains, museums, vino, molto bella ragazza, and the Vatican, I was worn out. Just as those roads lead into Rome, they also lead out of Rome. I never returned.

One guy that stayed in Rome, was Jep Gambardella, the writer and novelist who wrote his legendary and only novel as young man, and has spent the next 40 years as a permanent fixture in Rome’s literary and social circles. In short – a celebrity.

Jep is the lead character and narrator of the film, The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza). The film is directed by Paolo Sorrentino with the screenplay written by Umberto Contarello.

After viewing the trailer, I expected that Jep (played by Italy’s best actor – Toni Servillo), would be something like a Roman version of Tom Wolfe, the American novelist and non-fiction author who was at the vanguard of the New Journalism back in the 70’s. As Wolfe did for New York, and America, I expected that Jep would be an observer and a chronicler of life in Rome, the Eternal City. But Jep didn’t do much writing after his novel. A newspaper article here, a magazine piece there. Most of Rome’s denizens of the night didn’t get Jep’s words and commentaries off a printed page. Instead they got the live spoken version – face to face.

Jep as a young man said he wanted to live the lavish life of parties until dawn. He wanted to close down discos all over town. He wanted to walk home as the sun rose over deserted streets. He wanted the power to make those parties failures. He knew every one of prominence and everyone knew him as the king of Rome’s La Dolce Vita.

Jep: We've known each other for decades. Did we ever sleep together? She: No. Never. Jep: A great mistake that we need to rectify

Jep: We’ve known each other for decades. Did we ever sleep together?
She: No. Never.
Jep: A great mistake that we need to rectify

Yes, he did become the King of Swing in Rome. But by the time he was sessantacinque (65) his views had changed. Soured if you will. He still partied his ass off, and was still a magnet for women, but he saw the negatives in his fellow Romans in far greater frequencies than anything positive. He said that the best people in Roma were the tourists.

He was a man filled with a quite bitter outlook. He could be sardonic, and he could cut some one into little pieces with his rapier-like wit. Literally in seconds. But when we did see him respond to a woman at a party, it went on for long, long minutes.  She was reduced to nothing as Servillo performed this soliloquy, so well, that you won’t see anything better in a long time.

So more often than not, he would let out his dissatisfaction. We’re all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little… Don’t you agree?

Or his views have changed to such a degree that the effect was amazing:

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 really like the most in life?” I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.

Sorrentino’s film is filled with beautiful images, and often filled with the beautiful people. Many of whom no longer were in the bloom of youth, but they still danced all night – as couples, or in line dances, or in train dances. And the music was vibrant with its techno drums and bases throbbing, the dancers went side to side in unison as if they were a single entity rather than numbering in the hundreds.

Jep’s apartment overlooked The Colosseum which seemed as if it was just across the street.

The place had a terrazzo that would hold dozens and dozens of people. The people we met lived in exquisite homes. Early on, one man comes to Jep and tells him sorrowfully that his wife had died, and her diary was filled with discussions and entries, for page after page, about Jep.

Yes, she and Jep met as kids, and separated forever while still kids. This husband, her husband for 35 years, got only two lines in her diary. She said only that he was a good companion. He was more distraught about this than her passing.

Jep associated with all sorts of people, A Cardinal, supposedly in line for the Papacy who could bore you to death with recipes, a 42 year stripper, his editor was sage and wise but also was a 60 year female dwarf. He palled around with a failed actor friend, another guy who had the keys to enter all the best places (I mean museums) to see the famous and grand works of art in the middle of the night. Why did he have those keys? Because he was a trustworthy person, so he said.

L to r: Ramona the stripper, Jep, and Stephen The Key Master

L to r: Ramona the stripper, Jep, and Stephen The Key Master

What we get with Jep is not quite a walk on the wild side, but rather a peek behind the curtain of celebrity life as well as those who flocked to the celebrities. We see dozens of folks who needn’t work for a living. They’d party all night and sleep all day. People who considered 5:30 PM their morning. We also meet a 104 year old woman who was going to be put up for sainthood after she dies. Her handler calls her a bitch.

The film runs 2 and half hours. The film has literally hundreds of breathtaking shots.

This artist is just a 10 year old girl who wants to be a kid rather than a performing artiste. She cried with every can of paint she tossed onto the canvas.

This artist is just a 10 year old girl who wants to be a kid rather than a performing artiste. She cried with every can of paint she tossed onto the canvas.

It is an exquisite visual experience. But even though there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and many supremely funny pieces of dialogue, this is not a comedy. Rather it is more of a downer.

Jep can cut some one down in a flourish of words. But to what end? He can verbally pile on one sardonic statement after another. He is truly witty. But it doesn’t play as funny. One begins to see Jep Gambardella as someone who has lived better than most of us. But instead of being grateful he is approaching the state of what we might consider as some one who is bitter. See for yourself in the trailer:

I’m not sorry I saw this film. It’s not a flawed film, but it seems to keep you at an arms’ length distance rather than bring you in for a hug. Servillo is really an incredible actor. I loved him in The Girl By the Lake. By the time this film ends, we do not care for Jep as such, rather we feel something else. Something colder. If you want Tom Wolfe, you won’t find him in this film, and if you are hoping for a modern-day Fellini-esque experience, you won’t find that either. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe the film should not be taken at face value. Maybe we should read between the lines, or think of this not so literally. Could it be a black comedy meant to point out the foibles and folly of the rich and famous. Or maybe not. I shall rate it at just three-point two five.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Beauty aka La Grande Bellezza

  1. “But instead of being grateful he is approaching the state of what we might consider as some one who is bitter. ”

    Exactly! His depression feels like self pity. A gorgeous film with some interesting ideas, but it doesn’t all quite gel.

    • Thanks for stopping by Mark. If Sorrentino had a narrative arc to these pretty images, we’d have liked it a lot more. It’s a slice of life and the slice we get is cut from the life of the party as well as the party.

      But as a reader asked me in an email – why should we care about this man?

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