I was so put off by just the sacrilege inherent in the title of an article by Jimmy So in The Daily Beast that I couldn’t read it, and was less inclined to see Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty than ever. The blasphemous title was The New Fellini: Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘The Great Beauty.’ Sorrentino a new Fellini? Why, how dare he! Many Italian directors have added Fellinesque elements to their work, Woody Allen even make Stardust Memories as a spoof of il maestro’s 8½ , but to actually declare anyone to be Fellini himself? Like I said: sacrilege.
Eventually I was forced to surrender to the positive buzz and see the film. And then I read So’s article, in which he has a few of my same observations, namely that Sorrentino both pays tribute to the late master of Roman cinema and journeys beyond Fellini to his own interpretation of the Eternal City, its denizens and their ephemeral preoccupations.
I have not seen Sorrentino’s work prior to Il Divo, which I watched all the way through only because it dealt with an important character from my childhood in Rome, the impassive, brilliant, corrupt seven-time Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti; otherwise, I loathed it. In that instance, Sorrentino was not paying tribute so much as he was ripping off recent British crime dramedies — specifically Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock… and Snatch — but doing a terrible job of it because Il Divo was a biopic; that choppy, kinetic camerawork and editing was too distracting and pretentious, utterly unsuitable to the subject and the era.
Then came Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, which critics invariably call his “foray into American cinema,” but which was more of a two-hour tumble down a steep, rocky hillside and a big bounce right out of American cinema. For a start, Sorrentino should have heeded Kirk Lazarus from Tropic Thunder and never had Sean Penn “go full retard.” I’m not being deliberately offensive here. The expression “full retard” is specifically in reference to Penn’s earlier performance as a mentally challenged parent in I Am Sam, and there is some wisdom to Lazarus’ classic rant, albeit it specious wisdom:
Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, ‘Rain Man,’ look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic, sho’. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, ‘Forrest Gump.’ Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain’t retarded. Peter Sellers, “Being There.” Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, “I Am Sam.” Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed.
Okay, so maybe Penn’s character wasn’t strictly speaking the full retard. But the film sure was.
This Must Be the Place was lauded in Italy, winning lots of Donatello awards, and picked up a prize at Cannes as well. But the film made less than $150,000 at the U.S. box office on a budget of $35 million, and that is a colossal flop. And let’s not kid ourselves that it’s American philistines who don’t get European-style cinema. The film wasn’t made in America in English with an American star because it wasn’t meant to appeal to us. Like Il Divo, it was just weird, pretentious filmmaking, as dull and retarded as can be.
Now you know why I wasn’t particularly keen on seeing The Great Beauty. Added to this was the aforementioned sacrilege that apparently Sorrentino was mimicking Fellini the way he had Guy Ritchie. If I could avoid what was surely a great mess, I would.
I could not have been more wrong.
I am usually ruthless toward films that break classical dramatic convention. Meandering meditations like The Great Beauty are difficult to pull off and usually emotionally unsatisfying. There is too much ego involved, but egotism is one of the grand themes of the film, explored with grace, wit and in depth; it is a road film in which the road is the journey from self to self. That might sound like spiritual claptrap, but it works.
The Great Beauty isn’t just an homage to Fellini, it’s an outright adaptation of La Dolce Vita and its companion piece 8½, with a healthy dollop of Roma thrown in. The story opens on April 21, a date that legend marks as the birth of Rome, which also happens to be the birthday of the self-styled ‘King of the Worldlies,’ Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a Neapolitan journalist and art critic, and one-time award-winning novelist. Jep is the Marcello Mastroianni character from Fellini’s Roman masterpieces, but without Mastroianni’s seductive hangdog look and lack of purpose. Jep’s all shimmy and shake, confidence and bravado, tempered with a humanizing dose of sadness and sentimentality.
The similarities that make The Great Beauty an adaptation of Fellini rather than just an homage are evident from the first lengthy birthday party scene, which might as well be lifted straight from La Dole Vita: like Marcello in that film, Jep is a hack writer who chronicles Rome’s art scene and interviews its pretentious artists, just as Marcello tails celebrities; both Jep and Guido Anselmi, the blocked film director in 8½, have flashbacks to their childhoods with priests and nuns; there’s a cryptic cardinal the hero tries to consult in an attempt to find answers to his dilemma; the living saint Suor Maria in The Great Beauty replaces the children’s vision of the Madonna in La Dolce Vita; the hilarious Catholic fashion show from Roma is reinvented as a parlor jammed with middle-aged Romans getting botox injections from a guru-like cosmetic surgeon. And the giggling characters darting in and out of the foreground of the frame… and the use of foreign languages as tone poetry in the background… and the over-the-shoulder traveling shots of women, and gardens, and palazzi stuffed with artifacts and history…
The list goes on.
There is a discussion at the beginning of the film among guests assembled for a dinner party on Jep’s rooftop that is important for understanding why Sorrentino is both similar and distinct from Fellini. Someone makes the trite comparison between Milan and Rome, a never-ending discussion that everyone in Italy agrees on: Milan slaves away while Rome indulges herself, and Jep and his friends are the epitome of that self-indulgence. The subtext here is that both Fellini’s work and The Great Beauty aren’t just Italian films, they are specifically Roman; you could not make this type of film about Milan, Florence or even Naples. Rome is a distinct culture that isn’t replicated elsewhere — thank God, or the country would be more dysfunctional than it already is.
One of the distinctions of Roman culture is that it is unacceptable to talk about anything weighty or important, particularly work or career, when you are out socially. And for people like Jep and his friends, that means they rarely discuss anything important because they party every night. But that doesn’t stop Jep/Sorrentino from breaking convention, from trying to find substance amidst the superficiality.
A relevant, personal anecdote about this cultural peculiarity comes to mind. The first and only time I heard Fellini’s genius and position as a maestro called into question was, appropriately, at a dinner party I attended in my early twenties at the home of a Roman couple in New York. They were both socialites in the sense they came from well-to-do backgrounds; the husband was the scion of Rome’s most important Jewish family, the wife a plastic surgeon who never actually worked on anything other than herself, very much a character out of The Great Beauty. At the table, she yammered on ceaselessly about her collection of emeralds, which had been stolen in Rome. She described each piece in detail — its color, its cut, its setting. She was distraught over their loss, and she bored me to the point that I felt like passing out in my pasta. To make things worse, she had a speech impediment that is a common affectation among Milanese socialites, but not as much among Romans: she had an erre moscia, a ‘lifeless R,’ meaning she didn’t trill it and sounded like Elmer Fudd. That is incredibly annoying when you’re speaking a language that is so distinguished by the dramatic trilling of that particular consonant. It’s a worse affectation than the similarly deliberate theta used in Castilian to replace certain Cs and the Z.
Like Jep tearing into a snobby, condescending female friend in that dinner-party scene on his roof, but without his smoothness, the husband pounced on his wife’s stultifying monologue about the perfect color of her stolen emewalds, calling her an idiot and peppering her with a torrent of other invectives. It was horrible to hear and abusive, way too much public airing of private issues — they got divorced a few years later. But I had to agree with him that she sounded like an idiot. To change the subject and hopefully calm down the husband, I shifted us into film, specifically Fellini. The mention of Fellini’s name only further enraged the husband. In an articulate, intensely focused polemic reminiscent of an agitated geek with Aspergers, he laid out why, starting with his move away from neo-realism into surrealism with 8½ in 1963, Fellini stopped making films that had any meaning. They gradually became just weird for the sake of being weird, nothing more than pretty, noisy bullshit.
To some degree the frothy husband was correct. And Fellini knew it. He even announces it in 8½, in the one line from the film that haunts me to this day. Guido is driving with Claudia Cardinale and he moans, Ma non c’ho più niente da dire, “But I have nothing left to say.” And from then on, Fellini pretty much stopped saying anything and dedicated himself to putting circuses on celluloid. The rest of his films, with the notable exception of Orchestra Rehearsal, were pretty much meaningless, merely visual acrobatics, cabinets of curiosities, garish dioramas. In his quest for the meaningless narrative, he found his perfect script in the fragments of what remained of the prose poem Satyricon by Petronius and made that into a film. That fragmented narrative style lasted until the end. Fellini no longer needed to tell a cohesive story; he unburdened himself of the rules of drama. His films were now two-hour conversations about the distinctive green of flawless emewalds. By having nothing left to say, by letting go and embracing the superficial, the purely visual, the anti-intellectual, Fellini invented the Roman film.
Jep obliquely references this ideal meaningless narrative twice in The Great Beauty, by paraphrasing this quotation of Flaubert’s and claiming it as his goal as a writer:
What I would like to write is a book about nothing, a book without exterior attachments, which would be held together by the inner force of its style, as the earth without support is held in the air—a book that would have almost no subject or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible.
This is where Sorrentino both merges and diverges with Fellini. Like the fictional director Guido Anselmi, Jep has long since had nothing to say, but he doesn’t fret about it, he wallows in it — he has incarnated Flaubert’s ideal. Yet that’s just another pose he strikes in society, a great deceit; in reality, Jep has plenty to say about Rome and life and Roman life in particular.
A critical word in the film is mondano, which means ‘socialite’ like the subtitles say, but it literally means ‘worldly,’ or even better the other sense of ‘mundane,’ as in ‘of this world,’ not ‘dull, commonplace.’ As the re dei mondani, the King of the Worldies, Jeb has set himself up as a sort of anti-pope, underscoring the split personality of Rome as both a political/temporal and spiritual capital. The temporal-spiritual coexistence in Rome is one that amused Fellini; he saw the church as nothing more than theatricality and hypocrisy, something to be ridiculed as part of his great circus of life rather than venerated. In the beginning of The Great Beauty, it seems Sorrentino agrees with him, but later in the film the language shifts to something akin to prose poetry and Sorrentino steers Jeb and the overall tone in a distinctly spiritual direction — the earthy King of the Worldlies has an epiphany of sorts and enters what might be called a state of grace.
In the beginning of the film, Jep sleeps with an attractive woman who doesn’t have a job. “I am rich,” she says simply, as she guides him to her apartment overlooking Piazza Navona. Like all of the mondani in Jep’s world, she is only preoccupied with herself, to the extent she does nothing but take selfies all day long. In stark contrast, later in the film he meets a very different kind of woman, Suor Maria, a living saint married to poverty who is so selfless she cannot even bring herself to talk about poverty.
That dichotomy between worldly and spiritual, between selfishness and the selfless gives rise to Sorrentino’s second major intellectual meditation: Narcissism. This isn’t subtext, it’s discussed directly, and is supported by copious visual symbolism. With few exceptions, notably his dwarf editor, Jep is alone in not obsessing about being fully self-expressed. In the big party scenes, his guests dance frantically, flailing around with comically desperate gestures as if trying to claw attention to themselves right out of the air. But they dance alone, or they face each other in a line dance and mirror each other’s moves, or they form a Fellinesque conga line — but they always dance alone.
“Ego, ego, ego,” Jep sighs in exasperation. The obsession with the selfie is everywhere, especially in the art, and it is a feral, primal hunger that cannot be sated. A performance artist he interviews head-buts herself against a ruined aqueduct, drawing blood, but she can’t explain why she does it. At a garden party full of mondani, a child prodigy — who really isn’t a prodigy but just a willful brat goaded by her ambitious parents — screams without stop as she flings cans of paint against a huge canvas and attacks it with her whole body. In another, quieter scene that brings Jep to tears (does it really, or is it another pose?), an artist has pasted a mosaic of photos taken of him every day since he was a boy through middle age on the walls of an ancient garden.
Sorrentino has taken Fellini’s “But I have nothing left to say” and turned it on its ear: “I have lots to say!” the artists and the mondani cry. “I’m not sure what it is, but there is something. All I know is it’s about me!” And that in itself is a goldmine of thought.
That boisterous, primitive scene with the girl ‘prodigy’ dovetails into one of the more Felliniesque sequences of The Great Beauty. Jep takes his date on a tour of hidden Rome, guided by a man who has been trusted by the city’s princesses with the secret keys to the palazzi. His date is a vulgar, middle-aged stripper; bringing her to the mondano garden party seems like an act of defiance against the unrelenting snobbery of his friends, but in reality it’s entirely common in Rome to shake up the otherwise repetitive line dance of meeting the same people night after night with a minor scandalo like this. (The stripper cannot retire from her father’s nightclub, where she has danced her whole adult life; she cannot stop exhibiting herself. And she is always broke because she spends her earnings on beauty treatments.)
As their guide takes them past hidden gardens, Jep and the stripper enter a palazzo with room after room filled to overflowing with ancient Roman busts — these are the selfies of their ancestors. In that moment I was reminded of a conversation with a Roman friend, when I hadn’t been back to Rome for quite a few years. I asked if it had changed. She put her fingertips together and wagged her hand under her chin, Dopo du’mil’ anni, cosa cambia? “After two thousand years, what changes?” Indeed, even the Roman blinkered obsession with the self has withstood the millennia.
The passage of time, timelessness and mortality make up the third major motif of The Great Beauty. As the Eternal City only grows more beautiful with age, her mondani wither and fade away. No amount of botox or hedonism or attempts to leave an artistic legacy will stop that. Alone among his peers, Jeb is ultimately accepting of this. And that is what makes him king. He doesn’t just want to be the life of the party, he says, he wants to have the power to make them fail, an oblique reference to the line “I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end,” from the Book of Revelations. But his quest for immortality has eluded him. Now sixty-five, he has no more time or patience for things that don’t please him.
By having something to say and saying it so emphatically, so eloquently and in Fellini’s style, Sorrentino has created a masterpiece that stands proudly alongside il maestro’s in the pantheon of great Roman films. Yes, Sorrentino has once again co-opted another filmmaker’s language and voice, but it suits both him and what he wants to discuss, and these are weighty subjects. Il Divo would have been so much more watchable and germane to the subject of chaotic Italian politics had it been made in the same way. Pity. But we all grow and learn.
I haven’t been back to Rome in almost thirty years. As a middle-aged artist, as someone so preoccupied with my self —although not to those levels of hysteria — the experience of Sorrentino’s capolavoro was like looking in a mirror. He’s made it clear that I have never given enough credit to the ‘Old Whore’ of a city that raised me for forming who I am, my aesthetic, my outlook. Once I was re-Americanized as a young adult in New York, I had no more use for the frivolous preoccupations of the mondani I grew up with and their endless, empty discussions of flawless emewalds. But I’m wrong: Rome still has so much left to say. So does Sorrentino. Let’s pray he’s learned from this experience and continues to do speak with such lyricism and grace, and dumps the artificial grotesquery once and for all.