The camera flows through the city of Rome, watching a woman with a sculpture, a man washing his hands in a fountain, a group of tourists, one of whom faints after joyously photographing this grand view.
There are also sounds: The Great Beauty opens with the booming of a cannon, then the ringing of church bells. We then hear a haunting, incredibly beautiful chorus of women's voices, a theme that returns through the movie. With a little research I found that the music is John Taverner's The Lamb, which you can hear at the link. The words come from a poem by William Blake, a religious poem referring to Christ as the innocent lamb. This ethereal music, this hymn to innocence, is a strong counterpoint to the raucous goings on throughout the film.
For we go from the sublime to the pounding rhythm of rock at a huge dancing party, a very sexy coming together of bodies.
It is at this wild party, on his terrace overlooking the Coliseum, that we first see Jep Gambardella, the "king of high society", the heart of this film. I have to admit falling in love with this mobile face, that of the actor Toni Servillo, whose expressions of amused detachment, of kindness, of irony, of love, are mesmerizing. Paolo Sorrentino, the director of The Great Beauty, has created an homage to Rome, to memory, and to the great Federico Fellini.
Early in the movie, we see a sequence of images through a fence, of young innocent girls, of the beauty of nature, of Jep separated from these things. He is the consummate flaneur, the stroller, the "passionate spectator" as Baudelaire described it. Jep's wry, quizzical expression separates him from surrounding life. He is a man who wrote one brilliant novel when he was young and never wrote another; when asked why, he never explains. But one person tells him that it was clear that he was very much in love when he wrote it.
We slowly discover that there is a great deal of hidden emotion in Jep's life: the husband of his first and only love, a lost love, the love who inspired his novel, comes to him with the news that she has died, and he grieves. This image of curving staircases with the two men who loved Eliza bowed together is to me a picture of understated grief.
After lecturing a new love (a love he never thought he'd find again....and who died, also leaving him as Eliza did) that one should never cry at a funeral because it would be upstaging the family, Jep breaks down in tears carrying the coffin of a good friend. He sees the dissipation and meaninglessness of his life and that of his friends, but he also feels great affection for them. After tearing a woman friend to shreds, in a way forced to do so by her insistent arrogance, he remarks:
We're fond of you.....with a life in tatters like the rest of us. So instead of lecturing us you should look at us with affection. We're all on the brink of despair. We can only look each other in the face, keep each other company, kid each other a bit.
And then there's art. Earlier in the film Jep goes to see a performance piece and tries to interview the artist (he writes for a culture magazine). She refuses to describe what she means by "vibrations" that she receives in her work, and we can feel his amused disdain. At a large party (there are lots of parties in this movie, all peopled with the rich) a young girl is forced to perform a painting ("she's making millions"), the ultimate degradation of art into spectacle. Jep then goes to see an exhibition of photographs, hundreds of photos mounted in the arches of an old building. When the photographer was a boy, his father began taking a picture of him every day, and he continued the practice when his father died. We see him as a boy, a teenager, a young adult, into maturity. Here is life, fleeting, changing; here is memory and loss. Jep is very moved by the photographs and it is a joy watching his mobile features express tenderness and sorrow.
After presenting all the cynicism and wasted lives of Rome's high society, Sorrentino introduces a Mother Theresa-like character, Sister Maria, a sainted 107 year old woman who worked with the poor in Africa. I was inclined to think her presence was going to be one to be mocked, a false saint, but instead she was a quiet rebuke to the religious around her, especially the Cardinal, said to be in line for Pope, who could only talk about recipes for duck. When explaining why she would not do an interview with Jep, she said:
I took a vow of poverty. And you don't talk about poverty, you live it.In the one magic realism moment of the film, in early morning, Jep's balcony (Sister Maria had slept on his floor after a dinner party) was filled with flamingoes. The sister said that she knew the Christian names of all these birds, and I believed her. She had read and loved Jep's novel, and when she asked him why he never wrote another, he finally gave an answer:
I was looking for the great beauty but I never found it.Then asking him if he knew why she only ate roots, she turns to him and says:
Because roots are important.Then she smiled and with a gentle exhalation, blew the birds on their way.
I was tempted to end the post there, but Sister Maria's mention of roots takes Jep back to the foundation of his art: his love for Eliza. Is all art based on nostalgia, the "longing for home"? the longing for roots, and the power of memory, to move us to invent, to engage the imagination? the longing to grab hold of fleeting life? I found Jep's final speech very moving, though I know not everyone would feel that way; it is emotional and distant both, direct and also ironic; are we to believe the "blah, blah, blah" or the feeling coming through? And do we see art as a "trick"?
This is how it always ends: in death.
But first there was life hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. Everything's settled to the bottom beneath the hubbub and noise. The silence and the emotion, the excitement and the fear....The fleeting and sporadic flashes of beauty....amid the wretched squalor and human misery––all buried beneath the awkward predicament of existing in this world, blah, blah, blah.
What lies beyond, lies beyond. That is not my concern. Therefore....let this novel begin. After all, it's just a trick...yes, just a trick.