“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.”
Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘La Grande Bellezza’ (The Great Beauty) can be seen as a stroke of real cinematic magic. Though blunt and simple its premise may appear, the Italian art-drama film mostly flourishes in its ability to communicate a profoundly deep and educational message on humanity today.
And however much of a visual spectacle that it is, it is the change in one man’s lifestyle from decadently hedonistic to lavishly inspiring that sweeps us off our feet, the romance of Rome following close behind.
La grande bellezza and Paolo Sorrentino
Direction by Sorrentino and cinematography by Luca Bigazzi, this work is seeped in richness and pure emotion, leaving many critics weak at the knees. Sprinkled with history and following a poetic undertone, the opening scene quotes Celine; “Traveling is beneficial: it makes your imagination work. Everything else is just disappointment and trouble. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.”
Set amongst the grandeur of the eternal city of Rome, we follow Jep Gambardella — a 65-year-old acclaimed former writer and socialite who lives and breathes the superficial high life. It isn’t until after his lavishly outrageous 65th birthday party that he looks past the nightclubs to look inwards and find the true meaning of ‘the great beauty.
Amongst all the frivolous glory that sex, drugs, and rock & roll seem to provide, Jep is searching for truth. No doubt a shockingly stunning film that can be compared to the likes of European classics, Federico Fellini or Jean-Luc Godard, Bigazzi’s cinematography tends to focus on architectural pieces, bodies, and classical art, thus following the culture of Rome closely.
Appearing as though audiences follow the camera themselves, some of Jep’s closest friends are seen through freely moving shots, sometimes frantically following the beat of the pulsing club music. Flowing with history, operatic passion, and grand emotion, some claim that it is the visual spectacle that creates the meaning of the film rather than the meaning itself is striking.
Yet, it is the mixture of visuals, plot, and the exceptional characterisation of Jep as a person, as well as his change that creates the main interest. From technicolour rooftop nightclubs to the silent streets of the eternal city, we get differing perspectives on modern Rome and how it blends in with its ancient history.
Sorrentino summed up the location in all its grandeur by stating that ‘Rome has a beauty so large that one could die from looking at it for too long. And Sorrentino seems to portray Jep as the human embodiment of Rome, as he lives through the city’s highs and lows. I will say that, however much Jep seeks to find ‘the great beauty, he is still surrounded by luxurious interiors and grand Roman palaces, not very much aligning with his growing ideals and change in attitude.
As if to make a point of his attempted normality and stripping of decadence, he still walks among it many times. Yet these environments turn into something simple like a local coffee shop or a siesta in his apartment, thus showing his change.
Often compared to Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ because of its similar plot, Sorrentino’s film certainly seems inspired by that but is not just a carbon copy of it. It does stand strongly on its own. ‘La Grande Bellezza’ seems to be a deeper character study of Jep. There is analysis in the plot, and there is the contrast between life and death, as well as the grandeur of simplicity & nostalgia.
Where Jep fits in as a real socialite, mingling with other members of high Roman society, he is the standalone character who really looks within himself rather than only around. And the film captures a generation caught up in facades who refuse to look inward.
Struck by the death of a lover from the past, where Jep was once running around in fame and nightlife, he is motivated to look back on simplicity, rather than the excessive. This simplicity comes in appreciating the natural beauty and culture of Rome, swapping a strip club for a quiet afternoon in a historic vineyard or museum, and reminiscing on his childhood.
As someone asks Jep, ‘what is it that you love the most?’, he responds with, ‘the smell of old people’s houses, commenting on something so simplistic but still beautiful in its age and nostalgia. This nostalgia beckons Jep following the death of Elisa, his first and only love. However romantic this may seem, it is philosophical in its approach.
Searching for more meaning, having reached 65, he, however, does at times seem more pessimistic as he looks into himself, stating ‘what’s wrong with feeling nostalgic? It’s the only distraction left for those who’ve no faith in the future.
We as an audience can view this as either something quite pretentious and negative or interpret it as a step towards appreciating what he once had and can work towards.
Floating around in philosophy, Sorrentino’s work still for sure packs a punch. The philosophy is in an ever-changing time and focuses on nostalgia. In a scene where Jep ends up in a plastic surgeon’s office, he is surrounded by old hopefuls who long for their past & get it through pricey facelifts. In a scene focusing on nostalgia, the surgeon asks the woman, ‘want to go back 30 years, to when it always rained in late August?’
The bell rings, calling customers, again and again, this showing the repetitive and lifeless nature of these creatures desperate for the past, with no regard for their own happiness, but have decided to instead conform. Jep often has these moments of recognising and looking past this fakery, once the curtain of his lavish lifestyle drops.
In terms of Jep’s change, there is a contrast between life and death, and having reached the age of 65, some cynicism is there, but it is all a grand reflection of his own changing desires.
The change from being the king of high society to settling down as he goes through life could be seen as just an exaggerated view of what happens as we grow older, but ‘La Grande Bellezza’ strategically claims it to be more than that. Set in the eternal city, Jep sees the ephemeral nature of most things.
Where there is a celebration of life at parties, there is also tragic death, having those festivities seem pointless. He states, ‘this is how it always ends. With death. But first, there was life.’ Pointing in the direction of existentialism, this is a fairly simple statement in the blunt writing of Sorrentino but sums up Jep’s perspective quite successfully. Where death happens every day, the eternal city that is Rome continues to go on, it is a playground for those in it during their time.
Like exchanging a stack of cash for a chocolate gelato, the debate about what is most beautiful in life is subjective but mostly easy to answer. This is love, family, cherished moments, and happiness. Sorrentino’s film creates such a contrast between two great beauties, focusing on the lightheartedness and meaninglessness of life as something so grand, as opposed to the glamorous and superficial.
This fairly simple point is communicated with wonderful execution, gripping audiences onto every moment and person that Jep encounters. The writing style and expression of the film itself are quite blunt, yet I so appreciated this & found that it only kept it more realistic. Seemingly straightforward in its approach, this bluntness did mean that emotions don’t flow as freely as you’d expect and are not visibly fluctuating or dramatised.
Something important to note is that Sorrentino’s film is not only a comment on one man’s story but on the wider society today. He may have been trying to paint a picture of the differing perspectives of modern Italians, a take on modernity that anyone abroad can relate to and understand.
To say that Italians are either loudly materialistic or quietly philosophical is an exaggerated view of the two extremes rather than a summation of all Italian culture. Sorrentino too, so cleverly comments on the history of Rome in a beautiful way, as he shows the change in and disregard for Rome’s epic culture.
For someone like Jep who writes about the light and life that Rome offers, he hadn’t written a single thing in 40 years, pleading ignorance to these cultural writings, as he got caught up in the generic party scene. Rome seems to be the perfect place and most definitely not just a pretty setting but a backdrop to represent the need for Jep to find himself again.
As modernity and the party scene greatly contrasts the beautiful history of Rome, Jep, the ‘king of the highlife’, finds himself as ‘the great beauty’ whilst focusing on the historical beauty of the city. This could be as though to say that he went back to what was always there after decades of relishing in the fakery of high society.
This is a point familiar to many, that money or fame cannot buy happiness or love and that the novelty of it does wear away for good reason. And this is a popular debate, as we as an audience can comment on what we find most beautiful, challenging us to question our place in the world & whether or not we should rely so much on ephemeral materialism.
Following his revelation of change within himself following his birthday, he states that ‘the most important thing I discovered a few days after turning 65 is that I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.’ Whilst he sits down to drink with members of the Italian aristocracy and engages in meaningless affairs over the years, none of that was what he wanted to do.
Jep’s mission to find the ‘great beauty’ stems from not only the shock of the death of his only love but the fact that he has an unfulfilled career goal. He wanted to make a film about ‘happiness & how difficult it is to face the passing of time.
To which, whilst at another seating with Italy’s cream of society, friend Gustave Flaubert comments, ‘the finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought’. Again, Jep is searching for meaning and passion, but this focus on nothing is greatly existential.
Though greatly existential, Jep’s purpose seems to be the fact that he can now see beauty in simplicity, which is an important lesson for us all, as we are inspired to strip away the fakery or meaningless stress and be with our rawness.
A quote from actress Katherine Hepburn states, ‘I never lose sight of the fact that just being is fun, being wonderfully resonant with Jep’s changing philosophy. Jep’s perspective of beauty alters from focusing on blazing nightclubs and cocaine to peaceful seasides and quality time at home with old friends.
And the film itself is a bit pretentious at times, as much as critics do drool over it, as it could be noted as a European wonder, as its expression is quite different from any classic British or American feature. Sorrentino seems to attempt to make a big point about the fragility and fleeting nature of life, yet it is hard to travel.
Maybe tedious, but it does still make an excellent point and marks what makes a terrific film, it does still have us audiences in deep thought. Is the poetic and philosophical nature of Sorrentino’s writing provoking or confusing? As Jep is surrounded by hopeful authors, brooding thoughts are tossed around in an attempt to create some depth. Yet these statements that seek to inspire can be deemed as only artsy and somewhat overblown.
Though it is absolutely not without its great moments of reflection, as Jep visits a friend’s wedding, he tries to engage in a meaningful conversation with a priest who instead fobs him off as he becomes distracted by the gossip and scene around him.
This is a moment that is impactful, as it presents the grand change in society and even how established figures, such as a priest, have become caught up in the popular bustle of daily life rather than their deep-seated faith or thoughtful meaning.
Sorrentino’s master-work that is ‘La Grande Bellezza’ (The Great Beauty), is critically acclaimed for good reason, as within its gorgeous colour, life, and grand visual spectacle, there is still a beautifully resonant message. A film or piece of art interest can be defined by its discussion, as Sorrentino does successfully get this ball rolling.
The film successfully a society that refused to collectively look inward, to which audiences are vastly inspired by all its philosophical questioning. Though it can be deemed as a grandiose piece of work, it is still nothing short of exceptional and does deserve the majority of the praise it has received over the years.
As travel is an aspect of life that educates and changes us, Sorrentino’s ‘La Grande Bellezza’ is like a walk through Rome that has the potential to immeasurably shape us, making it one for the books.
Edited by Sevilay Cesurer
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