The term ‘bellezza’, and it’s adjectives ‘bello’ and ‘bella’ punctuate almost every part of the Italian language. Used to describe women, parties, fine art, fashion, cars, food, manners, football (‘the beautiful game’), the label is arguably overused to the point of becoming facile, empty, spent. This itself is interesting as it is also used idiomatically to signify deceit and mischief (‘dirne delle belle’, ‘farne delle belle’ ) and the lazy good life (‘fare la bella vita’), which are in turn cultural stereotypes that Italy and the Italians are criticized for, both within the ‘bel paese’ and through a foreign lens.
Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film explores this rich semiotic terrain of beauty through a cavalcade of characters set against the backdrop of the Eternal City. At the helm is Jep Gambardella, self-confessed misanthrope and jaded journalist whose reputation revolves around one elegant acclaimed novel from his juvenalia. Played by the sardonic and reptilian Toni Servillo, Jep is denizen of a hedonistic set of middle-aged ravers in Rome’s demi-monde. These range from pseudo-marxist beauties to dwarf newspaper editors, a glamorous stripper in her forties, and a frustrated playwright. Quoting Dostoevsky one minute and filling their boots bunga-bunga style the next, it’s hard not to see these grotesques as representative of modern Italy, luridly rotten to the core and spiritually famished by bloated self-indulgence.
While the film seems an obvious satire of the decadent and fraudulent recent Berlusconi era where a committment to the frivolous and ephemeral was almost an injunction, ironically it’s produced and funded by Mediaset, the TV behemoth and cash cow owned by the former Prime Minster, and an empire that is now getting directly into porn with three erotic channels.
We are led on a thrilling Dantescan descent into this vortex of debauchery by Jep, accompanied by his own angsty existential crisis, much in the same vein as Marcello Mastroiani’s character (also a journalist) in Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita. In fact, La Grande Bellezza is haunted by the neo-realist classic and connoisseurs will observe direct quotes, from the motif of the recurrent dawn signalling the passing of time, to the atmospheric lull of baroque city fountains at night. Like Mastroianni’s character, Jep too is haunted by the innocent loveliness of a young girl on a beach, whose message to our protagonist remains ever opaque to both our ears and his. It seems that the great beauty that he seeks is, like the sublime, literally unknowable.
This is not a love-lorn eulogy to the Eternal City, but a magnifying glass on a zoo, full of threat, poison, sadness and wonder in equal measure. The Romans, clamouring for the next new thing share an ovine appreciation for avant-garde performances that range from the ridiculous ( an artist headbutting a stone wall), to the tragic and exploitative (a crying young girl hurling paint onto a canvas in front of an international art set well past her bedtime).
Romano, hapless buffoon and best friend to Jep reflects on the delusional power of the city as he decides to return to the countryside after a failed career and empty love-life; ‘after forty years, Rome has disappointed me’.
Among the cultural capital, parties, power, and endless beauty the city fails to satisfy and Jep considers that the great beauty is in fact the profane, the everyday, the courage to be normal, forgoing the pursuit of the extraordinary in exchange for the quiet peace of ironing and a glass of red wine before bed.
And still, knowing all of this, the path of wrecklessly distracting hedonism seduces him, and equally so, us the audience- in all it’s trashy, spectacular, Roman rooftop bunga bunga glory, I was left thirsty for an Aperol Spritz and revelry til dawn. When it comes down to it, we are all gluttons for the great beauty however we can get it.