The first time I saw The Great Beauty, I was so moved by it, that I immediately watched it again. It’s incredibly rare these days that I see a film that affects me so deeply and it took me several more viewings (along with a bottle of wine or two) to fully understand why.
It opens with a quote from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s‘ Journey to the End of the Night’ which sets the theme for the film: “Traveling is very useful: it makes your imagination work. Everything else is just disappointment and trouble. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.”
What I admire the most about the film is the astonishing imagination of director Paolo Sorrentino. His ability to construct, layer, and organize a film assembled entirely from his own thoughts, observations, memories, and moments is truly remarkable.
On the surface there is little plot. The story is the internal journey of the protagonist, a writer named Jep Gambardella, played by the brilliant master of Italian acting, Toni Servillo. At almost three hours long, it’s an incredible feat of filmmaking to hold the viewer’s attention when nothing really happens. One of my favorite lines in the film is “Something’s always happening in Rome. Nothing happened.”
Jep is an aging writer who in his youth had written one famous novel, and now moves through Roman high society with a disenchanted malaise and is very aware of his own mortality coming into focus.
The brilliance of this film, for me, is in how Sorrentino constructs the narrative and takes us on Jep’s internal journey. There is no definitive time period in which the story takes place. Jep can be seen as a man out of time, with barely a foot in the various worlds he inhabits. A writer of a mercurial nature, he is continuously searching for stories.
The narrative feels surreal and dreamlike, encompassing Jep’s memories, experiences, friends, and the characters he encounters. When we are alone with him, Sorrentino lets the camera linger on whatever has grabbed his attention, creating a series of small digressions and layered images… The camera stays just long enough for the viewer to question the reasoning behind the shot and then cuts. These moments of small beauty wake Jep up, if only for a second, to the beauty of life. As he later says: “in-between the blah, blah, blah.”
Central to the film are Rome and Roman high society which are depicted as both sacred and profane. Sorrentino seamlessly blends the grace and vulgarity of human nature. The movie’s second scene is one of the greatest party scenes ever captured on film. Again, the director lingers on faces as well as the encounters between characters whom we only meet momentarily. Yet the film never judges. The vulnerability of each individual character is revealed, each one going through their own life struggles.
The director’s pursuit of universal human truths and the setting of the beautiful city of Rome owe a clear debt to Fellini, although Sorrentino’s personal knowledge of the City eclipses the obvious archetypal connections. The cinematography by Luca Bigazzi adds further layers of visual beauty. Many of the scenes are lit with harsh directional lighting creating eerily dark shadows which underscore the dreariness of the characters whilst they navigate their beautiful surroundings. Each scene, accompanied by a haunting soundtrack, evokes a sense of the surreal as if walking into a painting.
Spiritual undertones and issues of purpose and mortality are ever present in the movie, although it never wears its message on its sleeve. Far from it, the questions are there, but they are never confronted directly. The Cardinal in the film is more interested in recipes than spiritual truth. It is only towards the end of the film, after Jep’s encounter with the nun, that he begins to gather some clarity. Realizing he won’t get answers to the bigger questions, he resigns himself to the fact that he is a writer and he must write. As the film ends and his new novel begins, he says, “After all, it’s a trick.”