The Great Beauty, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, opens with the breathtaking view of Rome from Janiculum Hill, so intoxicating that a Japanese tourist collapses and dies of a heart attack whilst consuming it. Not only does the opening serve to entice us into the arresting beauty of the eternal city, it sets up the film’s prime concern; in Roman mythology Janiculum was founded by the Roman god Janus, the two faced god of beginnings.
From the grandeur of the old city, we are thrust into the licentious, manic, hedonistic scene of Jep Gambardella’s 65th birthday celebrations (Jep played by Sorrentino’s muse Toni Servillo). His modishly decorated apartment, combines the crass and the classic; the glowing plastic furniture on his terrace overlooking the modestly lit coliseum. Sorrentino’s juxtaposition of Rome’s modern decadence with the decaying sublime of the old world is startling.
“Rome makes you waste a lot of time, it’s distracting,” Jep tells us. He wrote a highly acclaimed novel in his 20’s and has been complacent writing journalism ever since. He interviews a performance artist, Talia Concept, who literally butts heads with a centuries old pillar for her “art,” and needs to abstract her ideas so a critical public can invest in it non-existent meanings. But Jep sees through her deflection, and knows the painful truth behind it; that the lingering ghost of the eternal city trivialises the modern aesthetic.
Jep’s complacency is rocked by the death of his first love, Elisa, the news brought by her shattered husband who confides to Jep that in her diaries, she only wrote about her love of Jep. The nostalgia of his first sexual encounter with her pervades his dreams. Like the city so given to its past, Jep has lingered in stasis. With Elisa’s death he is forced to face his future by confronting an irretrievable past.
Sorrentino has said that the script had its genesis in a collection of anecdotes about the Roman bourgeois, the script weaving in and out of these collected tales of the city, reminiscent of Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan, or Rome: Open City, combined with Federico Fellini’s obsession with beauty and delight in the carnival, carnal, anarchic piquancy of celebrity and party culture.
The Great Beauty could survive on its aesthetics alone, but the city isn’t merely the glorious backdrop against which Jep’s story unfolds. Toni Servillo said the film offers a “portrait of the city as a metaphor for the human condition, which is more about lost opportunities than hopes.” The city ties together beautiful contradictions that Sorrentino captures in images that cling; a hint of leg under the chaste garb of a nun as she picks oranges, a countess grasping at her glorious past through a discarded museum display in her attic, the food obsessed cardinal accepting groveling kisses from buxom, surgically enhanced women at a wedding. This is after all the Catholic city that gave the louche Berlusconi three terms as prime minister.
The Great Beauty is at once poetic and political, but above all, it is beautiful. It is no wonder why it beat out the strong contenders this year to win the Academy Award, the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for best foreign language film.
You can catch The Great Beauty at Roseville Cinemas, and at Chauvel, Norton St and Paddington Palace Cinemas.