Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Great Beauty (La Grande Belezza) (2013)


"This is my life, and it's nothing".

In what is perhaps one of the greatest film beginnings ever, filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino juxtaposes the distinct moods that his ironically titled, "The Great Beauty" promises to immerse the audience into. It is a golden, sun shiny day, and the camera glides around a historical site in the great city of Rome while a group of choir ladies croon an ethereal composition, exalting us into an almost divine stupor. A group of tourists are visiting the site. One of the tourists goes on to photograph the beautiful surroundings, and in the process, collapses and passes out, leaving us wondering if it was the sun that did it, or an overwhelming sense of fulfillment upon witnessing the miraculous sites around him.

Cut to a polar opposite mood, and right into the glitz and glamour of a dazzling, luxurious roof top party, complete with throbbing music, expensive liquor, gorgeous women and an eclectic bunch of party animals dancing away into the night. If the first scene puts you in a spiritual mood, the scene right after leaves you in high spirits, literally, as the camera gradually films the revelers upside down, and you are practically floating with the lot.

This is the lofty world of Jep Gambardella, an aging journalist and one-time novelist. Jep has always been the king of the high life. A party animal since his youth, Jep has been among the who's who and all the glitterati. But now at 65, he suddenly feels awakened to the emptiness and futility of his hedonistic lifestyle. He has always been aware, but now seems to be vocal about how he feels about all the plastic posers and wannabes around him. 

The kind of bunch he hangs out with has also made him somewhat of a misanthrope. He hasn't written a second novel in 40 years, for he lacked the inspiration and had been seeking the great beauty which he could never find. In a double whammy of sorts, Jep receives news that an old lover of his, Elisa had died and that it was found from her secret diary that she'd always loved him, 'til the end.

Jep finds himself at a strange crossroads in his vain existence, in the wake of these unexpected circumstances and changed thought processes. Thus begins his journey of self reflection, with pleasurable nostalgia acting as a welcome distraction from the depths of disillusionment. He ventures out into the streets of Rome, catches up with old friends, makes new ones and in the process, ends up discovering some of his own hidden emotional traits and a fresh approach to the meaning of life.

Sorrentino's film is a magnificent, colourful feast for the eyes and the ears, brimming with ideas and events that are entertaining as well as thought-provoking. The music, the cinematography and the strong, imaginative writing and its realization on screen are strong pillars of the film, all of which contribute to making it a sublime masterpiece. 

Amid all the grandiosity and pizazz, are embedded deeper subjects like nostalgia as a necessary diversion, gerascophobia (the fear of aging), mortality, loneliness, existential crisis, and escapism as a gateway to artistic inspiration. Toni Servillo successfully embodies the soul of Jep Gambardella in a sterling acting performance. Laced with wry humour and melancholy, "The Great Beauty" is a bittersweet, poetic tale, of a man's labyrinthine contemplation on life, intercut with memories, dreams and fantasies in a Fellini-esque canvas.

Score: 10/10


Jep, being a writer, always acknowledges that writers imagine things, they add fantastical elements to reality. "When you write, you give life to fantasies, imagination, lies." Similarly Jep's journey is filled with fantasies and oneiric elements often melded entirely with the real world making them an integral and homogenous part of his experiences. It is not made explicit as to what is real and what is imagined, but based on the sheer absurdity of a situation or the presence of an exaggerated scenario in an episode makes this distinction visible.

In one such sequence that surely feels imagined, a little girl is lost somewhere in one of the monuments of Rome, and her mother is looking for her. Jep soon comes across her in her hiding place. She looks up and asks him who he is. As Jep starts to speak, she interrupts and says "No. You're nobody". Jep attempts to respond but finds himself at a loss of words. He suddenly finds his bubble burst, by a little girl, no less. This could be a manifestation of his own existential crisis; a realization of how his life has been vacuous with no real meaning.

Upon hearing the news of Elisa's death, Jep's mind drifts further and goes back in the beautiful past on a rocky beach where he first met Elisa. This wouldn't be the first time Jep would recall this. It is clear he has always reminisced about his first love. In a sleepy state, he mostly imagines that he sees the same sea where he met Elisa on his ceiling, as he lies down looking up. Along with such pleasant memories there are also manifestations of a guilty conscience. Moments after he learns of Elisa's death, there's rain and thunder outside, where a nun cackles with a devilish laughter, in a mocking way. Just as Jep appears at the scene, he sees two other nuns glancing at him with scorn.

Jep feels a sense of nostalgia, a lost innocence, purity and honesty when he sees kids playing with the nuns in the garden. He longs for that emotional fulfillment in simple joys of life. Later in the film when his editor Dadina (Giovanna Vignola) calls him 'Little Jep', it takes him by surprise but he is certainly moved by the gesture. He misses the tender love which had been obscured by all the fake affected relationships around him.

Years of being in the company of the people he doesn't find any real connection with, but for his buddy Romano (Carlo Verdone) and his dwarf editor Dadina, Jep has lost faith in real, selfless bonds. This has turned Jep into a cynic who cannot really make real friends anymore. This could be one of the reasons he goes back to meet old friends of his after several years. One of them has a 40 year old daughter, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) who aspires to be a stripper in her father's  nightclub.

Her father requests Jep to talk her out of it and perhaps, encourage her to find a husband and settle down. When Jep tries to do it and explains that family is a beautiful thing, he gets an answer from Ramona that echoes his own. "I am not cut out for beautiful things". Jep finally meets a person who matches his wavelength. Ramona and Jep connect well but their time together is short-lived.

"Everything around me is dying". Somewhere along Jep's journey, circumstances also force him to confront his own mortality. A psychologically troubled Andrea (Luca Marinelli), the son of Viola (Pamela Villoresi), one of Jep's friends, takes his own life after being haunted by the writings of Proust, who says death is around the corner. In an absurd sequence, Jep delivers a long monologue about the etiquette of a funeral, saying it's actually like a stage event. Ramona tries on several dresses for the funeral, during which Jep explains that one should never weep in a funeral for this steals the show from the family of the deceased.

But in a dramatic deviation, Jep begins to weep uncontrollably at the funeral, especially when no one comes forward to pick up the coffin when Andrea's friends are called upon and Jep and his gang volunteer to do the deed. While Jep is already aware of the inevitability of death, perhaps it dawns upon him, that even he may die lonely and friendless with no one around to take his coffin out. 

Part of his sorrow possibly stems from a guilt of not having done enough to help Andrea, despite Viola's requests. This is one poignant moment that brings out Jep's concealed fragility and serves as a sharp contrast to an earlier scene in which he accuses a socialite, Stefania (Galatea Ranzi) of judging and criticizing others to cover her own fragility and inadequacy. In another seemingly random scene that connects well to this emotional state of Jep, an old woman grabs Jep's hand in a cafe and asks "Who will look after you now?"

Some very subtle instances and other more prominent ones dwell upon mortality in connection with aspects like an inherent humanistic trait of clinging on to the past and lamenting the loss of past glory. While ultimately this facet gives Jep the inspiration he needs, we see some other fleeting characters like old aristocratic personalities, royal princesses, has-beens reduced to playing cards in darkly lit room while their beautiful heritage sites are locked away and preserved with the keys handed over to a trustworthy young person. The monuments serve as a reminder of their glorious past, a bygone era.

Ditto for a forgotten pair of a Count and a Countess who are now reduced to being hired for elite lunches and dinners, yet refuse to assume the identities of another family because they were at war for centuries! Later when they come home, they listen to recordings, presumably from museums that remind them of their roots and move them to tears. A now older, but famous French actress Fanny Ardant makes a blink and miss appearance as she strolls the streets through the night and bumps into Jep who almost doesn't recognize her, but eventually does. They smile at each other and she walks away.

Aging, mortality, and a desperation to hold on to a youth fast fading is one of the major themes explored in "The Great Beauty". And therefore we see an outlandish sequence of a cosmetologist in a freaky looking clinic giving some plastic old people botox injections in return for hefty sums of money. A one of a kind exhibition displays photographs of a man showcasing his day-wise aging, for he has continued his dad's legacy of taking one photograph per day throughout his life.

These experiences coupled with Jep's own drifting away into his days of yore, particularly that amorous experience on an island, further convinces him that nostalgia is indeed a great thing that connects you with your roots; makes you feel young, happy and human! Romano spells out this aspect in one of his theatrical plays: "What's wrong with feeling nostalgic? It's the only distraction left for those who've no faith in the future!"

A 104 year, decrepit old nun, Sister Maria, also known as the Saint (Giusi Merli in an excellent performance; the actress is actually 50!) visits Rome and Jep finds an opportunity to interact with an eccentric cardinal, in relation to his struggle with faith and spirituality. His hopes of finding answers are thwarted when the cardinal is more interested in enjoying the feast instead, and showing off his own culinary skills. In a very funny sequence, when Jep is blunt about his views on the church, the cardinal who is also known to be a great exorcist, exorcises Jep before he drives away!

"Do you know why I eat only roots? Because roots are important". It is only in these words of Sister Maria that Jep finally seems to find an answer and a direction. In a moment of epiphany, Flamingos gathered around on Jep's terrace to rest while migrating, fly away when Sister Maria blows in the air. Jep realizes, the time has come to migrate to the next state of his being with a new realization. But in the final pivotal scene, whether this realization sways towards his cynical side or towards an optimism, is debatable. Here is where the interpretations fork without any definite conclusion.

Jep does acknowledge that everything ends with death. But first there was life; a life of emotion and fear, silence and sentiment. Only it is hidden beneath layers added over the years of all the 'blah blah blah'....probably in a self-deprecating reference to his own grandiose life. This scene is interspersed with flashes of memory with his first love on an island and a parallel scene of Sister Maria's monumental achievement of climbing St. John's Basilica's Scala Sancta on her knees, in a very freaky sequence. These flashes of memory are what he perhaps refers to as 'haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty' that are hidden beneath the 'embarrassment of being in this world', his present.

And after all, 'it's just a trick'! In a cynical worldview, it would seem that he embraces his empty existence in a positive light as a glamorous distraction from human misery. Jep's friend Arturo makes a giraffe disappear with his trick. A little girl throws paints on a canvas and rubs them around and creates a modern art masterpiece. A woman head butts on a stone wall, but turns out she uses protective foam. Artists deal with the art of deception. The trick is to play with reality and use imagination. Writers do it too, as Jep admits earlier in the film. Distortion is the key. The past is gone, it is beyond and provides only 'inconstant flashes of beauty', and he doesn't deal with what's beyond.

And therefore with a sense of complacency, Jep's novel begins. The 'blah blah' that he grows weary and conscious of, suddenly seems to have a positivity to it. Paralleled with Sister Maria's feat, is Jep's achievement of changing his lens of looking at things. The film is book-ended by these two similar ideas, the beginning having a quote from Louis-Ferdinand Céline's "Journey to the end of the night": "Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It's a novel, just a fictitious narrative." Jep's extravagant existence was his deception, his escapism.

But on the other hand, could the trick he is referring to, be just the opposite? To overlook the 'blah, blah', and behold what lies beneath the surface? It is true that Jep remarks "I don't deal with what lies beyond". But could it be possible that while he presently does not deal with what lies beyond, a changed, reformed Jep really wishes to put in an effort (think Sister Maria's effort and achievement again) to dig beneath and unearth the emotion, the sentiment, and make those inconstant flashes more whole?

There's a third, meta way to look at it. Maybe Paolo Sorrentino is playing with the audience here. If the obvious conclusion doesn't suit some positive thinking audiences, perhaps they could deceive themselves and choose the other optimistic interpretation of the ending! Whatever the case, we can only hope that Jep Gambardella, who we have come to like so much by the end of the film despite the cynical old man that he is, finds his peace.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice review, Aditya. Agree with most of your thoughts here. Missed the detail of the head-banger artist using foam, haha. Also, the forgotten Count-Countess couple that were hired for elite lunches. This is actually brilliant and ties in thematically with the film, particularly that of selling fronts, also reinforced by the scenes involving the niggs posing with the nun for a pic and the old fucks visiting the anti-aging clinic.