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.”
Like a prosecuting attorney, he presents the evidence he’s accumulated finding the accused guilty as charged. So we have truth but little beauty in this art. And he is not above turning his truth-telling on his own coterie of acquaintances (you can hardly call them friends). A fellow writer. Stefania brags about her 11 novels and continued creative output while being a “good mother.” Jep verbally exposes her quietly, simply, surgically. She’s been a panderer for “the party,” a woman who will use sex as a means to advance her career, and whose marriage and family life is a mere sham, a tailored appearance that “cuts a look” (in Italian, la bella figura) but without any real substance underneath.
Jep also has no trouble including himself among these poseurs: “This is my life and it’s nothing,” he tells us at one point and then among his friends he speaks of his life as “in tatters like the rest of us . . . on the brink of despair.” In his search for “the great beauty,” he has only one memory, one nostalgic moment, which permeates his thoughts: a first love that inspired his first book, and recently he has been told that she has died.
He walks along in a lonely passeggiata through the Roman streets, perhaps hoping to emerge out of this despair. He tries to befriend Ramona, appearing to take a genuine interest in her purely as a person, instead of the striptease seductress she is used to playing. “Do you think every guy who comes to you wants to have sex?” he asks. She responds, “It’s never happened until now.”
He attempts to convince a psychologically troubled young man, Andrea, that Proust does not deserve the respect and honor the boy accords him. Servillo’s gestures and expressions convince us of a man not without compassion but without any real answers. His face hangs with the gravity of too many jaded years. When Jep cries at the young man’s funeral (clearly “against the rules” in this culture), we wonder if Jep weeps for the loss of this young man, or his own wasted life?
Jep’s struggle is not unlike that of the dualist described by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book, Christ and Culture. Niebuhr points out that, “When man cannot any longer assure himself that he is the master of his physical fate, he turns to the things he believes are really under his control, such things as sincerity and integrity, and tries to shelter himself under his honesty.”
We have to include in this catalogue Jep’s own holy grail, “the grand beauty,” something he once believed would reawaken the creative spirit within him. The loss of a lover from his youth, the loss of individuals much younger than himself, the disillusionment with this shallow unfulfilled life, the dissatisfaction with the state of art itself: all contribute to a desperation that brings Jep to seek out the exorcist Cardinal Belucci inquiring of the “holy” man what might be done? Instead, the Cardinal offers a feigned blessing and disappears into the back of his limousine and drives away.
We half expect a transformation will finally occur when “the Saint,” a sister of the church, a Mother Theresa figure, wishes to dine with Jep on her visit to Rome. She is a frail 104-year old woman whose feet cannot touch the floor when she sits. Many come to kneel in her holy presence while Jep can only see the surfaces of faith in empty pomp and ceremony. Sorrentino’s scans the lavishly decorated interiors of the church, an ironic setting for so many lost within the church, Jep included.
Two notable scenes take place toward the end of the movie. With “the Saint” present, there is a visit to Jep’s balcony by hundreds of migrating flamingoes. She issues a long blowing breath that sends all of the birds on their way south. Is it a moment of epiphany for Jep, or “just a trick”—alluding to an earlier scene where a circus performer makes a giraffe “disappear”? Are these natural visions somehow apparitions, signs of an informed and transformed life, even of “great beauty”?
Do we sense redemption in the character of Jep Gambardella? It is difficult to say. Has there truly been a change here, a kind of conversion, or are we simply seeing the best we can hope for (a cherished memory) on an already fatalistic stage?
Niebuhr suggests a transformative perspective for both the individual and the culture, and it may be one we can go on living with. He writes that cultural and individual transformation can occur when “humility and service supplant self-assertion and self-glorification.” In some larger sense, Jep admits to his sin but also comes to realize that his own epiphany cannot fully take place by his own efforts whether they be honest, truthful, or even philanthropic in nature. Niebuhr writes, “our individual Christian decisions are not individualistic . . . they cannot be made in solitariness on the basis of a truth that is ‘true for me.’” And therefore, “What makes the moment of crisis, the critical, decisive present, so pregnant with meaning is not the fact that the self is alone here with the responsibility of decision, but that there is someone compresent with him.”
Where, we might ask, is that compresent “other” for Jep? His desire is to once again repossess the means to speak of “this moment,” this life, in all of its complexity, compulsions, and contradictions, but offering up the truth—as he has throughout the film—cannot be enough, nor is the elusive “great beauty,” or any memory associated with it any consolation.
Again, Niebuhr’s response becomes a more fitting conclusion: “Without companions, collaborators, teachers, corroborating witnesses, I am at the mercy of my imaginations.”