Just weeks before the Academy Awards, Jim Zingarelli, professor of art, offers his response to one of the Oscar favorites in the category of Foreign Language Films, The Great Beauty:
Art, Memory, and H. Richard Niebuhr: Seeing Paolo Sorrentino’s Film The Great Beauty
By Jim Zingarelli
E’ Cusi. I refer to it as Italian fatalism, expressed most succinctly in a shrug of the shoulders with both palms out, full eye contact, and the expression “e’ cusi”—as in, “that’s just the way it is.” You’re born, you grow up, fall in love, have a family, and eventually you die. E’ cusi. Fellini gave us La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) which was anything but: Maestroani and Ekberg embrace in the middle of the Trevi Fountain in the middle of a Roman night in the middle of a beautifully tragic temporality betrayed in the blank gazes of the marble gods.
Paolo Sorrentino now gives us La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), a film that introduces us to Jep Garmbardella (played wonderfully by Toni Servillo). Jep is a Roman celebrity, a journalist, who parties hard among the fashionable elite of Rome. At 65, he has not written anything of note since his much-acclaimed novella “The Human Apparatus” was published some 40 years ago. We enter Jep’s birthday bacchanal: a multitude of dancing, grinding, bedazzled bodies in various throes of ecstatic pleasure (much of it chemically induced) moving to a pulsating track driven by bass and drum. Sorrentino openly shows us the decadence but does not dwell on it. This, indeed, is Jep’s perspective. In fact, none of it possesses much sensual shock or titillation anymore: “A few days after turning 65, I realized that I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do. “
Jep’s world is cinematically framed by Sorrentino employing the spatial limitations of balconies, balustrades, and stairwells. Even the hammock is a net that Jep must struggle to rise from. His apartment overlooks the Coliseum, a broken down oval of ancient Roman spettacoli, riddled with holes, filthy, and another reminder of an ancient past that some Italians find historically oppressive, even a barrier for any kind of creative innovation. It has become the anti-inspiration. Is it any wonder that at the dawn of the 20th century, Marinetti and his Futurist cohorts wanted to send all of the Veronese, Titian, and Tintoretto paintings “floating down the canals of Venice” to be finally rid of the past’s ostentation in order to blaze a new world? DeChirico’s surreal pictorial response to this was a stagnant Italy among its columns, arches, and broken statuary. A train passes, but let’s face it: in a painting nothing really moves. Nothing is actually heard.
”Something happens in Rome. Nothing happens in Rome,” Jep states flatly. He speaks the truth and has no qualms about confronting anyone else with it. A performance artist (whose work involves her running headlong, naked, into one of the arches supporting an ancient aqueduct) attempts to provide yet further shock tactics in her post-performance interview. She instructs Jep to write about her sexual exploits, her extreme behaviors, but he presses her with questions about artistic intention (and integrity?): “Again, what did you mean by ‘vibrations’?” he asks. She simply weeps, ”I don’t know.”
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