Arts and entertainment journalist Jep Gambardella has a problem. Standing in the middle of the swanky pageantry of Roman nightlife at the age of 65, he feels more than a bit foolish and, as a result, lost. When first we meet him, it is amid the thumping techno and drunken revelry of a lavish rooftop party that seems initially that it should be the purview of 20-somethings cutting loose in Ibiza. But through it all strides Jep, resplendent in his stylish suit but feeling increasingly out-of-place amid such bacchanal, even though he is still welcome and desirable as a guest. It is not the nightlife that regards Jep as too old to partake in its frivolous revelry; it is Jep himself. Nor is it a condescending dismissal of the life; although frivolous, Jep is genuinely affection and thankful for the good times and is hesitant to let go of them. There is value, after all, in something that gives us pleasure, no matter how shallow it might be. It is simply that Jep now feels his time among these revels has passed. And although quick with an inviting smile, a companionly arm around the shoulder, or a heart-felt raising of the glass, he’s beginning to wonder what the hell he’s doing at his age still strutting around to booming electronica at four in the morning.
The temptation to compare director Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, to regard it as some sort of alternate world sequel in which we catch up with Marcello Mastroianni’s journalist Marcello Rubini thirty years after we last saw him, is powerful. Almost irresistible. Few articles about the movie — this one, obviously, included — get through the first paragraph, or even the article title, without mentioning La Dolce Vita. It’s not surprising, and it’s not unjustified. La Dolce Vita remains for many the quintessential Italian film (well, it and Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City), or at least the quintessential Italian film exploring Italian life (through the eyes of a smartly dressed journalist with lovely eyewear). Only time will tell if The Great Beauty ascends to similarly rarefied cultural importance, but it certainly deserves to.
“La Dolce Vita for the Berlusconi era” wouldn’t be a wholly correct description of The Great Beauty, but it’s close. Sorrentino shares with Fellini an eye for extracting the grotesque and absurd from superficially elegant or polished surfaces (Jess Franco, with his obsession over heavily made up women, does the same thing, though more by mistake than with intent). Both films feature as their main characters impeccably tailored journalists who cover that curious intersection of artistic pretension, bourgeois indulgence, and failure; where people still regularly go to society salons and desperately try to maintain their delusions of grandeur. Where bankrupt aristocrats ignore their financial woes and rub shoulders at posh clubs with the starlet, the has-been, the never-will-be or the never-was. There are, however, some substantial differences between Marcello Mastroianni’s Marcelo Rubini and Toni Servillo’s aging Jep Gambardella.
While both cover wild society events and trendy art world happenings, Marcello does so from the periphery of sophisticated society while Jep finds himself in the middle of it and often is its center of attention. He is not regarded as a laughingstock or as the “creepy ld guy” at parties meant for the young. He is welcome and wanted. Despite having only written one novel in his life, Jep’s career as a high-living journalist writing about other high-livers has garnered him considerable adoration. As he states himself, he wasn’t striving to be the guy invited to all the best parties; he wanted to be the man with the power to ruin the party if he didn’t show. As narcissistic as that might sound, it is tempered by the fact that, as far as we can tell, Jep only wanted the ability to ruin a party. He doesn’t actually ruin them. And this is the second difference between him and Marcello. Jep is a substantially more likable character. There is a cynical streak in Marcelo that is more tempered in Jep, a bitterness not present in the older man even when he is delighting in taking the piss out of an artist with an inflated opinion of him or herself. It is tempting to equate the two, but I doubt Marcello would have ever become the warm, loving individual we see Jep to be.
In a style similar to La Dolce Vita‘s series of vignettes, we stroll through the life Jep has built for himself as it begins to dissolve and as he begins the search for something else. He has, as they say, reached the age where life stops giving one things and starts taking them away. Amid the flurries of ennui, he still discovers things worth celebrating. His editor, a tough woman who appreciates Jep’s no-nonsense sense of humor, is a delight. And Jep strikes up a poignant friendship with a middle-aged stripper. Their time together provides the film with many of its sweetest moments. Best among these moments is when the two abandon a fancy art show full of the city’s most prominent movers and shakers in favor of going with a friend who happens to possess keys to a number of famous museums, landmarks, and palaces, which Jep and Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) tour in joyous solitude. Their relationship is beautiful, a subversion of the “aging man seeks renewed life by dating a younger woman” cliche. For starters, she’s not that young. Younger than Jep, sure, but still in her forties — not old, but not young. They also remain flirtatious but (as far as we can tell) platonic friends. And Jep does not look to her for salvation, or burden her with the demand (as so many films do) that she do the work of inspiring him to rekindle his love of life. She is not his manic pixie dream girl. He is not her lonely and distant man who needs saving. They are just two people who become friends.
While the film might analyze the state of the lives of Jep’s friends, he rarely stoops to judging them (only once does he break down and deliver — with delightful eloquence — a scathing indictment of a friend). Instead, his observation of their lives, of their triumphs and tragedies, is a microscope he uses to examine himself. He is well aware of his own short-comings and perfectly happy to acknowledge them, though he is never wracked with guilt or regret for the decisions he has made. He has squandered his talent as a writer, but he has led a pretty good life regardless. This amused self-awareness tempers the harsh advice he sometimes has to deliver to friends. His friend Romano (Carlo Verdone), for example, is a frustrated playwright struggling to adapt a story by Gabriele D’Annunzio to the stage. Jep, who speaks from a position of knowledge as a fellow writer suffering writer’s block (though Jeps’ has lasted for decades), tells Romano he’s wasting his time, that he should write something original. Jep’s dismissal of Romano’s great project may sting at first, but ultimately Romano heeds the advice and writes something genuinely moving.
We get the idea that Jep is surrounded by people going through the same transitional period as he himself is, and that together they bounce enough support and criticism off one another so that at least some of them will find their way. And that whatever solutions are discovered will come from within rather than from some external force such as “finding religion.” Although events int he movie lead Jep to ponder his first and only true love, he is not a man who bemoans the fact that at his age he is still a bachelor. He seems quite happy to be so, and the film doesn’t force a saccharine, old fashioned “if only I had a family, I’d be whole” cliche on us. Nor does it sink to the typical “existential crisis solved by an exotic foreigner” cliche that so often seeps into films. You know the ones, where a sad and unfulfilled white person travels to some exotic land and meets some exotic new person and by virtue of that person’s magical otherness, becomes whole again. And, like I said, religion offers no answers, either. The film has two major religious characters. the first is a much respected Cardinal on the short list to become the next pope, but who Jep discovers to be vacuous and unwise, only interested in talking about the latest cooking techniques and the most sublime ways in which to prepare duck. It’s not a condemnation of religion per se, as much as it is a mild disappointment and ultimate dismissal. The second religious character is an ancient, withered nun on the road to sainthood. In her Jep discovers much to admire, though almost none of it has to do with her faith.
Only once is Jep eviscerating in his critique of others, and even then it is after multiple deferments and only couched in the language of what he himself is and how he has failed in life. This comes at a party when a long-time acquaintance keeps praising herself, her strong Socialist principles, the importance of her art, and the many sacrifices she has made. Jep’s eventual take-down of her is a thing of beauty in itself, and perhaps the film’s most overt critique of Italian society as a whole and the lethargy and apathy that had settled over the once vibrant community. Plus, any writer probably knows someone like the friend Jep critiques (or perhaps you are like that person), and there is at least some satisfaction in hearing Jep so effectively yet so politely run down the litany of delusions and aggrandizement behind which the other character hides. even then, we see the two reunite later in the film, seemingly better for having aired a bit of dirty laundry.
Well, there is one other moment when Jep calls shenanigans on someone in blunt fashion. He is assigned to interview a daring new performance artist, but when he refuses to be dazzled by her studied quirkiness, self-affected strangeness, and nonsensical responses to his questions, he (politely) loses his patience and hammers away at her pretensions. But again, he seems not to be motivated by maliciousness or misanthropy. Even when he’s doing things like this, Jep is possessed of such affable charm and levity that it’s hard to think of him as being mean. He simply refuses, especially at his age, to be taken in by pretense and falsehood. His skewering of this one artist is not a skewering of art in general, even art when it is behaving a bit silly. Don’t be taken in, but don’t let the fact that some people try to take you in obscure the fact that the world is indeed still full of beauty and things worth loving.
Modern cinema has an homage problem, a “love letter to…” addiction that pushes many writers and directors to revel in the past, to try to recreate whatever film, whatever feel, whatever genre they loved in their youth. In moderation, this is fine. Modern voices mimicking voices from the past can still bring something new to the table, some new form of expression or modern twist. But often, we find ourselves merely aping what came before, and doing so in such quantity that it becomes at the expense of discovering our own voice. Comparisons of The Great Beauty to La Dolce Vita are not undeserved, but Paolo Sorrentino is definitely doing something more than writing love letters to Fellini. This is a film that is, at least in some way, about coming to terms with nostalgia, of appreciating the past while not getting misty-eyed for it (characterized most overtly in the film by Jep’s remembrances of a romance from his youth) or dwelling on it to the point where you disregard the present and abandon the future. These museums Jep walks through, and the ruins of ancient Rme, are inspiration for future; not just refuge from the present. “What’s wrong with nostalgia?” one character asks Jep. “It’s all that’s left for people who have given up on the future.” Although they remember it, often fondly, Jep and La grande bellezza are not looking to relive the past, however. Jep isn’t wondering “What if I’d done things differently,” but rather is asking himself “What do I do next?”
Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi guides Jep through the film with a deft hand and an attention to composition, color, and detail that all too rare in the chaotic films of today. It is as gorgeous a film as has ever been made, taking great advantage of Rome’s character, lighting, and tailoring (Jep’s suits!). It is a film more than willing to sit and think for a spell, or let the images on the screen speak for themselves (Jep walking through ancient ruins, or along the coast and seeing the hulk of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, which in 2013 was still capsized off Isola del Giglio in Tuscany). Sorrentino is not as difficult to comprehend as some of the past Italian masters with whom he is sometimes mentioned. His is not as scatterbrained as the plotting of Fellini, nor as bleak and impenetrable and Michelangelo Antonioni. Sorrentino is occasionally esoteric, but his film is rarely unapproachable. And it doesn’t wallow in melancholy, though certainly there is something bittersweet to all that we behold. Despite all that happens in it of a sad nature, at the end of La grande bellezza, one is left feeling uplifted, inspired, and as willing to open one’s eyes to the world as Jep.
And for these moments, we thank actor Toni Servillo. As Jep, he turns in a grand performance. When he needs to be broad, he is broad, but for the most part it is a subtle, charismatic, and deeply moving acting job that never becomes cheap or manipulative. Servillo disappears entirely into the character of Jep. He has a face made for playing this sort of man, and a skill at bringing us to an emotional point without becoming maudlin. Even when he’s being a little cranky, it’s hard not to love Jep. He is not only charismatic and honestly loving to those around him, but he is a bit of an everyman. As he drifts through this mad city of artists, dreamers, rooftop parties, and secret treasures, Toni Servillo frequently has a smirk on his face, as if to say to the audience, “Can you believe we get to do this?” And it is we, after all, who get to do it, since Jep is more than happy to bring us along for the ride. He circulates through the upper echelons of society, but he is no exclusivist. Performance artists, movie stars, supermodels, internationally famous party DJs — he knows them all, and they know him. But he’s just as happy, perhaps even happier, with old drug addicts, strippers, weird guys with keys to off-limits courtyards, and general riff-raff.
Jep might be unmoored in life and facing an existential crisis, but he not a man for whom the world has soured. As the title of the film suggests, even in a crumbling Italy surrounded by people who once created such profound works of art and culture but are now content to sit on the couch (as director Paolo Sorrentino describes Italian culture during the Berlusconi years), there is still much to admire, much to enjoy, and much to find beautiful. Marcelo in La Dolce Vita would be fun to spend a wild evening with, but he’d eventually get moody or overly acerbic and kill the fun. Jep, however, one could be friends with for decades. He’s not unaware of the charmed life he’s led. He just has to figure out where it leads him next. Jeps’ eyes are old, but age has not made the world a dimmer, duller place. If anything, age has opened Jep’s eyes even wider to the world around him, even if he’s unsure of his place in it.
Ranking alongside Jep and Ramona’s midnight tour of museums is the scene in which Jep stumbles across an incongruous giraffe standing in the middle of a deserted amphitheater. It turns out to be the property of one of Jep’s old friends, a stage magician who is practicing his latest act, during which he will make the giraffe vanish. In a moment of self-pity, Jep asks if the magician might make him disappear, a suggestion the magician laughs off. “It’s just a trick,” he explains. Jep is momentarily distracted by the arrival of another friend, and when he turns back around, the giraffe is gone. The moment at which a smile of such childlike joy crosses Jep’s face as he raises his arms in the air is just exquisite. The simple wonder of a vanishing giraffe trick can bring the viewer to tears.