A young statuesque woman, stark naked, her head wrapped in gauze, runs straight into a brick wall, splitting her skull open.
She’s a conceptual artist.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), writer for a popular Italian magazine and our Virgil through this particular Roman hell, tries to interview the “artist” for a profile. Her responses to straightforward questions are composed of vapid phrases and meaningless nonexplanations and references to a boyfriend she makes love to 11 times a day and who covers basketballs in confetti. Jep is a man who sees through everyone’s act, every self-important pose, and cuts her down to size, getting her to admit that the language she uses to explain her “method” is void of content. She tearily threatens to complain to his editor and request “a writer of greater stature.” He reminds her that she should be cautious about using the word “stature” in addressing his editor.
She’s a dwarf.
Did I mention we’re in Rome? There’s a party going on, and only the upper classes are invited. They dance, they exhaust their senses, they lie to each other. They spout blather about everything and nothing. They fashion themselves originals but are nothing but cover artists.
And they look absolutely exquisite doing it.
Jep has been living off the fame won from a novel written 40 years ago. His Mexican maid asks why he hasn’t written another. He’s too busy, it seems, wallowing in his personal decline—and that of the city he loves. Jep’s orgiastic 65th birthday party gives way to a travelogue of sorts, as he wanders through Rome, picking up friends and strangers along the way, and unknowingly collects the materials for what may be yet one more work of greatness.
One evening he visits an elegant strip club that happens to be run by an old friend whom he hasn’t seen for years. This friend begs Jep to set up his 43-year-old stripper daughter with a rich acquaintance so she will enjoy something of a stable future. “I’m a writer, not a pimp,” Jep replies. But once he meets Ramona, the two hit it off. He proceeds to regale her with his theories about the meaninglessness of finding meaning in meaninglessness and escorts her to yet another Roman bacchanalia, but this one features a special treat. A young man arrives carrying a “case”—filled with golden keys. Those keys open doors to Old Rome, that from which modern Roma has fallen. Jep, Ramona, and the Keymaster walk ancient halls and marvel before busts of Roman greatness and sculpture that bring into bold relief the garbage that makes modern artists millions today. The patrons of this treasure trove appear to be three princesses who sit at a table playing cards as these tourists of classical Italy walk by. This is Rome’s still-beating heart—concealed from both hoi polloi and DIY nobility fallen on such hard times that they literally rent themselves out for parties at 250 euros an evening, a distraction from the home-remodeling reality programs they otherwise would sit glued to.
For a short time it appears that Ramona and Jep may become something of a mismatched couple, but it is not to be. “I’ve spent so much money trying to fix myself,” Ramona laments—only to disappear, where to we are never told.
Most of Rome apparently is paying good money to fix itself. A plastic surgeon has wealthy clients literally taking numbers so he can inject Botox into various parts of their bodies. Even a young nun cannot resist the temptation to make her only exposed body part, her hands, look prettier. Unable to fend off death, Romans nevertheless wish to be immortal, or at least look the part.
Italians make an art out of everything, it seems: complaining, boasting, incompetence. There’s an absolutely breathtaking shot of someone walking along the upended side of the Costa Concordia. Other people’s humiliating detritus is a Roman’s building blocks. For Italians, even mourning is an art.
One still evening, as Jep and his friends luxuriate outdoors, sipping wine and chatting, a fellow novelist excoriates him for his utter lack of significance, of commitment. Didn’t she write 11 novels to his pathetic one-off “novella”? Didn’t she raise four children with her devoted husband, while he remains childless and alone? Didn’t she remain dedicated to “the Party” and its cause? Isn’t she an example of self-sacrifice, of a life seriously lived? Jep gently informs her that she is filled with self-deceit. Why can’t she just admit it, as they all have? They’re all failures of a kind, all empty. That’s why they spend their days mindlessly entertaining themselves and talking about trivial matters. It would be foolishness to do otherwise. As for her 11 novels, they were all published by the Party’s press and reviewed in Party papers. She spends all her time either working or partying, and so her four children were raised by babysitters, nannies, and chauffeured around by others—a strange kind of “self-sacrfice.” And as for her husband—he’s having an affair with someone named Giordano. She knows all this, which is why she makes a point of lecturing everyone else about her own successes, to hide palpable failures. She storms off in a huff, a living example of the irony of hard-leftist narcissism: outraged to have a mirror held up to itself.
When Jep learns that a young woman he loved many years ago has died, he relives over and over those last moments with her, on a beach, when it appeared that they would come together—only to watch her pull away, forever. Why did she reject him, especially when it appears that for more than 30 years she kept a diary in which she did nothing but write about him? Her own husband merited a mere two lines. “A faithful companion,” the husband tearily recites. He has come to Jep’s home to tell him that his wife had loved him, Jep, all those years, which in Jep’s mind is sheer madness. When he asks to see the diary, he is told that it was thrown away after the funeral. Jep is left trying to puzzle out what should have been, might have been, but that must remain a mystery, that is until he can find a way to turn it into satisfying fiction.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, all is no longer well with Jep. He is introduced to a cardinal at yet another party, a man destined for the papal chair and once upon a time “the most important exorcist in all of Italy,” and tries to engage the prelate in spiritual talk, to disburden himself of we know not what. But the cardinal is too preoccupied with recounting his duck recipe for the other guests. Clergy as whitewashed tombs, beautifully clad but devoid of life, just more partygoers.
What about Sister Maria, the “Santa,” the living saint, who is coming back to Italy—supposedly to be interviewed by Jep? Is she a sign of authenticity, of true spiritual depth, of significance in a culture awash in petty, fleeting distractions? This 104-year-old Mother Teresa lookalike is hauled around in a dog-and-pony show so that ecclesiastics and dignitaries from around the world can kiss her hand and get a digital picture taken by her side. Even African guests in traditional tribal garb have their Nokias at the ready.
When Jep’s editor is informed by Sister Maria’s handler that the “saint” will not, after all, sit for an interview, she insists on hearing it from her directly, only to have Sister Maria intone in her paper-thin voice that if one wants to do something about poverty one must live it. Which is why she eats only roots. The aforementioned cardinal is awestruck by the “power” of her words, and recounts how he, too, eats only roots. For one meal a day. Occasionally. Cooked in lemon, of course.
It’s hard to tell whether the “Santa” is a mockery of the Mother Teresas of this world (few though they are), whose holiness is seen by the hopelessly secular as just another kind of entertainment for people of dying faith, or whether our final image of her is meant to convey transcendence, Italy’s only true hope. Perhaps I’m seeing as ambiguous what is little more than a feeble joke, my own self-deluded attempt to import a spiritual dimension into this delightful artifice.
And what of Jep? Will he continue to float from party to party, gleefully dismissing as pretentious self-delusion all attempts by others at some kind of vindication? Or can he mine from his past poetry a new life, finally find “the great beauty” he seeks?
Critics have gushed about The Great Beauty and also reflexively drawn comparisons between it and Federico Fellini’s great 8 1/2, with Jep Gambardella as an older, more jaded Guido Anselmi, the film director unable to bring meaning to a film in progress because he cannot weave the disparate elements of his own chaotic life into one coherent whole. But I think this does The Great Beauty and Sorrentino something of a disservice. Sure, he’s treating us to a Fellini-esque sideshow—giraffes, dwarves, zaftig women of easy virtue and all. But he seems more interested in creating a unique kind of time capsule, one that reflects a certain timelessness, snapping his own gorgeously rendered and delicately composed pictures of a place and a people who have made an art of dying by imbuing it with its own strange life—and by clinging to an inevitably crumbling past, like a drowning man to a rust-riddled buoy in the dead of night. It’s not quite a narrative, because this story has no beginning and no end. It’s the soul of Italy, and timeless. From Machiavelli to Mazzini, what Italian writer or thinker of note has not bemoaned the Motherland’s fall from greatness, regretted the invincible waywardness of the Italian people, their laziness, disunity, and decadence? And who hasn’t wished for one more chance to nudge fate in another direction?
Toni Servillo’s performance as the late Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti in writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s 2008 gem Il Divo is one of my all-time favorites: imagine Bram Stoker’s creation Renfield gifted with Dracula’s wits. In The Great Beauty he brings to the writer Jep just the right mixture of cynicism and sensitivity, insouciance and intelligence, to keep him from becoming a boor and enabling us to believe he may still have one more great work of art left in him.
The Great Beauty is, like the upper class, not for everyone. No one loves exposing (and reveling in) the degeneracy of the literati and upper classes like the Italians. But nothing is more un-American. The Puritan and Anglo-Saxon DNA of our culture still finds repugnant , even at the entertainment level, I believe, this kind of navel-gazing leisure class, lazy, arrogant in its own self-deprecation, immoral. And many readers of this blog may be equally put off by the graphic full-frontals and crude language and seeming lack of a core spiritual commitment. So be warned.
I always believed that the iconic image of Italy should not be the Colosseum or the canals of Venice but the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s always about to fall, can’t not fall, must certainly and sooner than later fall. Yet…it never does. Any other people would have let it fall and left the ruins, or rebuilt an arrow-straight modern office building in its stead, as a matter of honor if nothing else. But not Italy. Any country can collapse. Any country can rebuild bits of itself with cheap materials. But Italy—Italy likes canted angles, and old things, and keeping people holding their breath, and dancing at the brink. Because that’s where the real party is.
But all great civilizations collapse eventually, no? And when that day comes that the tower starts to tip beyond its braces and the tourists start to run and the natives rail at their own self-indulgence, in the shadow of that imminent disaster will be someone with a paintbrush or a pen or a camera, recording it all, wedding chaos and coherence, dark and light, glossing death’s pallor with brilliant color, producing out of Italy’s certain doom something of great beauty, and in so doing, save her.