Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty
By Maurizio Giammarco, Ph.D., Intellectual Heritage Program, Temple University
The Great Beauty (la grande bellezza), directed by Paolo Sorrentino.
Paolo Sorrentino was born in Naples, and after making a series of short films, followed by his 2001 feature debut, One Man Up (L'uomo in piu), achieved international recognition in 2004 for his stylish thriller The Consequences of Love (Le conseguenze dell'amore), which explores the mindset of a lonely businessman who is being used as a pawn by the Mafia. The film, starring Toni Servillo, won many awards and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. After his next feature, The Family Friend (L'amico di famiglia), Sorrentino achieved recognition for Il Divo, a dramatized biography of Giulio Andreotti, the controversial three-time Italian prime minister. The feature, which won the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, reunited Sorrentino with the star of The Consequences, Toni Servillo, who plays the role of Andreotti. In 2008, Sorrentino directed This Must be the Place, an English-language story featuring Sean Penn as a rock singer who tries to avenge his Holocaust-survivor father.
With The Great Beauty, Sorrentino not only returned to Italy, he has also taken on its past and how it weighs upon the present and future. Set in Rome, the Eternal City, the film follows Jep Gambardella, a sybarite played with wit and soul by Toni Servillo, who dances into the story while celebrating his 65th birthday. Four decades earlier, Jep's only novel, The Human Apparatus, was celebrated as a masterpiece, but these days he works—if barely—as a journalist and lives in a terraced apartment overlooking the Colosseum. He was, he says during his party, “destined for sensibility.”
|The film opens with lines from Céline's Journey to the End of the Night: "To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength..."|
In an interview with The New York Times, Sorrentino offered several reflections on The Great Beauty, Italian alienation, Federico Fellini, and Rome. On the comparison made between The Great Beauty and La Dolce Vita, and on Fellini:
“...I know that the idea of this movie worked in the same context as some of [Fellini's], but 50 years later. La Dolce Vita is a film that tries to understand the meaning of life in a world that is losing this meaning. That is a sensation I can feel right now in Rome, the sense that life is futile, that you can't find a real sense of purpose. I think the vulgarity is more accentuated [today than 50 years ago] as is the loss of the sense of pudore, of shame or modesty or reserve. This is the feeling of my movie...For me Fellini is the most important director, my point of reference. So such comparisons [between the two films] are flattering. I'm also embarrassed, because I think he made masterpieces, and I don't.”On the idea for the film:
“I'm from Naples, but I always wanted to do a movie about Rome. I had the idea of a character who could be a kind of Virgil from The Divine Comedy, of a journalist and writer who could be inside. But before starting, I read many things about Flaubert and his idea to write a book about nothing. All the things I had collected about Rome were exactly about this: it's life, but it's nothing. This was very fascinating for me.”
|Jep, a one-time successful novelist, spends his days entertaining socialites and the literary elite. A shock on his 65th birthday causes him to reexamine vivid memories from his past as he struggles to find meaning in the present.|
“Berlusconi made a great contribution to this culture of nothing. He's an example of this attitude. There were all sorts of reports of Berlusconi being expected in Parliament to discuss important matters, and he kept everyone waiting because he was busy doing frivolous things. So Berlusconi has contributed greatly to this culture of distraction from important issues. He has promoted a culture of escapism.”On Rome:
“The city is one of the most beautiful in the world, built by the Italian people many, many years ago. But now the people who are in Italy are not able to replicate that beauty. In a very simple way, the contrast between the beauty of the city and the lack of beauty of the people could be a motive for reflection...Rome is a place where, more than any other city, the sacred and the profane go together, and so I decided to use both kinds of music [sacred and disco] to show what Rome can be. Rome is a city where in every corner you have a reminder of the sacred world. That's why I have sacred music, minimalist sacred music, which is also music I like, because at the end of the day that's what I want to do. I'm thinking of pieces by David Lang, Aarvo Part or Tavener. They are useful for me to talk about the nature of a city which is imbued with sacrality but inevitably ends up diving deep down into emptiness.”
Maurizio Giammarco received his M.A. in Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English from Temple University and has taught at the university for eighteen years. He is one of Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s most popular instructors and is currently teaching the sold-out course, Il Maestro: The Carnivalesque Cinema of Federico Fellini, Pt. 2. He will lead a free discussion of The Great Beauty at BMFI after the 1:30 pm show on Sunday, February 9.