“She took a step back and said …”
On quick reflection exiting the theater post-La grande bellezza [The Great Beauty], I came to the simplified but apt conclusion it felt like The Great Gatsby by way of Holy Motors. Here’s a man, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who explains right off the bat that he’d choose the smell of old peoples’ houses over the chance to get laid and yet we watch him dance the night away with a drink in his hand amongst Rome’s pompously self-important, faux aristocratic elite on his 65th birthday. Why? Because he’s also unabashedly power-hungry. Not to rule, though, he’d much rather have the clout and presence to ruin a party than provide its subject. He’s very good at it too, especially now that age has cultivated reflection and an inability to hold his tongue when the inevitable daily boredom proves insufferable.
Unlike Gatsby, however, this grab at vanity isn’t to win a girl. No, Jep’s love affair with his gregarious image is completely self-serving as a way to almost reward himself for the literary accolades showered upon him four decades earlier that he has willfully failed to build upon. He says it was because he never found the titular “great beauty” to inspire him to write a second novel, instead choosing to bury his head in a journalistic arts and cultural column as a man who gave up the search long ago in lieu of criticism describing why everything entering his vision fails to live up its billing. He’s embraced the “blah, blah, blah” of his narration—his nightly sleepwalks through monotonous debauchery that never filled the hole in his heart since day one—because it’s all that’s giving his life meaning.
Why after forty years of hanging out with the same judgmental troupe that considers a rousing evening to be intellectually empty debate does this existential crisis begin, you ask? Well that is about a woman. Specifically the one he let slip away without a second thought. The first girl—and possibly the last—he ever loved dies while he celebrates the start of another rinse and repeat year of chumming with vapidity, eating soup with his editor, and seducing Italy’s finest with a cigarette and a smile. And he never would have known if not for her widower standing at his door to explain he was the man his wife loved. Distraught in discovering he was merely a “nice companion” while love still burned for another, this grieving stranger had to share his sorrow and Jep couldn’t help but comply.
The man Jep could have been floods into his consciousness as thoughts of the past cause discomfort in his lavish lifestyle. He says hello to an old friend, discovering a rare vibrancy in grown daughter Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) to spark an affair. He pulls some strings to give best friend and biggest fan Romano (Carlo Verdone) an opportunity to stage a theatrical performance as a way to repay the only true love he’s known since moving to Rome. And he lets jealousy seep in when looking at his mysterious, mute neighbor with a commanding presence who can’t help but conjure feelings of inadequacy where a bottomless joie de vivre once lived. But the memory of that first love keeps bringing him back to beauty, wonder, and meaning. It was there all along; he simply missed it.
So The Great Beauty becomes a sort of awakening from the doldrums of style over substance packaged by director Paolo Sorrentino in a vehicle some could say was just that. It begins with a beautifully composed sequence of death amongst tourists letting the beauty of Rome’s majesty fill them while a women’s chorus sings in the distance. It’s as though the scenery overwhelms an unknown man who dies after taking its photo—the same expanse of wonder that once filled Jep with possibilities in youth but now merely provides postcard flatness called home. I understand the phenomenon living so close to Niagara Falls and allowing its magnificence to evolve into a simple, “Whatever, I’ve seen it before.” So cutting from it to the sweaty, kinetic nightclub with deafening music and aged excitement couldn’t be more appropriate.
This is what gets Jep’s engine revving: attention removed from the landscapes and architecture that risk taking it away. We watch as he basks in it to realize he himself could very well be the “great beauty” he couldn’t find. How could one, though, if all your time was spent cultivating an impeccable façade and code of conduct that even has the audacity to transform the act of attending a funeral into charade? Only when death arrives at his 65-year old door does he begin to wonder if he’d gone about it wrong. Friends die or leave, youth perishes without warning, and regret sets in. Because in the end, what’s having the man with keys to the city’s rare corners of opulence (Giorgio Pasotti’s Stefano) in your pocket if there is no one to share it with?
The cinematography and music at the back of Jep’s journey to self-discovery and ultimately depressed, self-satisfaction is glorious to behold on the big screen whether used for reverence or the many instances of humor that subverts the carefully composed severity of the frame. Servillo is a commanding presence himself as his Jep moves dejectedly around Rome in search of events and actions he yearns for rather than accepts out of habit. Best when putting the mirror up to his friends engaged in an unspoken truce of pomposity, (his dressing-down of Galatea Ranzi’s Stefania is cruel and invigorating while calling out Roberto Herlitzka’s Cardinal Bellucci is flat-out deserved), you can’t help know everything comes down to Giusi Merli’s “Saint’s” words about living poverty and not speaking it.
Everyone in Jep’s circle cares little about what those words mean, though, instead partaking in over-the-top situations with which to laugh at as their complete ineptitude fails to discover how vain and hollow they are. These people talk about exorcism with the utmost seriousness; enjoy watching a naked performance artist run head-first into a wall despite her having no thesis other than chaos breeding a “vibration” she cannot define; and have no shame calling out anyone but themselves for the worthless, forgettable existences they live. Jep is too good for them and yet revels in being their superior—the one they look to solely because he’s conditioned it. The time has come for Jep to write again—to live the beauty he’s sought rather than talk about it. The question remains whether he’s up for the challenge.
 Toni Servillo
 Sabrina Ferilli
courtesy of Janus Films