Review by James McBride
When Paolo Sorrentino, director of The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), is asked about his debt to Federico Fellini, he demurs. Of course, Sorrentino says, the great master has influenced all Italian filmmakers – indeed, filmmakers everywhere – but he insists that his work is not in the same league.
But Sorrentino’s humility clearly protests too much. Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Film, The Great Beauty both echoes and updates Fellini’s central themes: the contradictions of a decadent and listless consumerist society, and the existential struggles of the individuals seeking meaning within it.
The individual in question here is Jep Gambardella, an aging socialite and journalist (in that order) who has crowned himself king of Rome’s high-flying glitterati. But the arrival of Jep’s 65th birthday shocks him into the melancholic realization that his life is slipping away: “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do,” he muses. Much like Fellini’s cynical gossip journalist Marcello in La Dolce Vita, Jep must face the emptiness of getting everything he thinks he wanted.
The problem for Jep – a man bored by endless parties, beautiful women at his beck and call, and access to the highest echelons of influence – is that he doesn’t seem to know what he wants. The film spends its 142 minutes exploring this question in meandering, impressionistic episodes set in a gorgeous, sprawling, and perpetually twilit Rome – the city which serves as co-star and muse for Jep’s peregrinations.
As we follow Jep on his Dante-esque sojourn through the Roman underworld, the shape of his life’s great disappointments become apparent: the failure of his first love, which turned him, instead, towards shallow womanizing, and his failure as a serious writer, which left him, instead, to produce inane celebrity profiles. The “great beauty” he once sought is now nothing but an aching nostalgia, a constant recrimination of his pursuit of lesser things.
In this sense, The Great Beauty is a deeply religious film, despite its criticism of the Catholic hierarchy. While comforting institutions and ideologies – the Church, the Party, the market economy – falter, Sorrentino returns again and again to the symbolism of prayer, repentance, penance, and resurrection. Jep, like a latter day Augustine, has come to the logical endpoint of a life of indulgence, and is bewildered and mildly panicked to find it pathetic and empty.
Thus, when, in a key scene, Jep’s editor accuses him of laziness, we understand what she really means: he is afraid. Afraid of trying, and possibly failing, to be either a serious writer or a serious lover. Afraid that his entire adulthood has been an elaborate effort to avoid confronting the central questions of his life. Afraid, above all, of pursuing the great beauty that may – or, terrifyingly, may not – lay beyond the boundaries of his manic lifestyle.
Sorrentino ultimately provides us with little in the way of resolutions or reconciliations – at the film’s close, life in Rome, with all its lust, corruption, and loneliness, lurches on. Yet Jep has begun to change, and we see his unspoken determination to confront his fears before it is too late. He quietly resolves to resume his writing. Tentatively, he allows himself to again love a woman, and face her loss. Bumbling and vulnerable, he turns to a priest for spiritual direction.
If Fellini perfected the portrait of the artist at his midlife crisis, Sorrentino shows him in old age, ruled by nostalgia and shadowed by death. And in the midst of the sorrow of wasted time, hints to us the ever present possibility of rebirth.