The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)1

 

“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds
and water of fishes”—Baudelaire on the flâneur.

 

Music 

 

The femmina a capella are somberly poised and singing in Yiddish—a song like a voice blowing over the mouth of an empty bottle—in the cleavage of columns on the Janiculum Hill in Rome. The song is met by another in counterpoint, and both are threaded by a cello. A group of Japanese tourists listens, politely transfixed. A song is performed in stark profile by a mysterious standalone in an upper arch, with tears in her eyes. And Dawn Upshaw sings the Lento of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, written in memory of those who died in the Holocaust, while minimalist strings pulse under the pure fact of her voice—plaintive beauty that chills and makes the hair stand on end. So it is that a history beyond Rome’s haunts the words ROMA O MORTE engraved at the foot of Garabaldi.

 

The past was glorious, the present is peculiarly pointless and macaronic, the future is marvelous. Everyone yearns for a happy life, but no one knows what it consists of. From this stems the great difficult in attaining it (Seneca). And beauty never gets a break. The loneliest footsteps of the flâneur protagonist, 65 year-old Jep Gambardella, are accompanied by Martynov’s The Beatitudes played by the Kronos Quartet’s tugging, nagging strings. Peering over a balcony, cocktail in hand, Jep envisions childhood sustained on the one-note austerity of Avro Part’s rendering of “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” the Robert Burns poem. In The Great Beauty, the music is its own genius. Sight and sound braid like a Schubert quartet, flawless and frequently ravishing. The sound of birds, all kinds of birds, is everywhere in the film. The magical scene in which a flock of huge, flagrantly fleshy flamingoes roosts on Jep’s balcony one morning (the nearby Coliseum visible in the background) shocks, not least because the birds are mysteriously silent. Is this holiness in avian form? An aged female saint seated on the terrace tells Jep I know all of their Christian names. Flamingos are associated with the Archangel Raphael, who stirred the healing waters of Bethesda’s pool, where Christ healed the blind man. 

 

Roots

 

Jep is a flâneur of the immensity of Rome, of its monumentality and niche. He wanders here and there because he has no life of his own. That is why everyone loves him. You can talk to him. An aesthetic and emotional absolutist who at an early age became a mere aesthete and detached observer, Jep gave up on the present soon after glimpsing “the great beauty” in his first young love when she bared her breasts to him on the rocky shore of the sea. She was not to be a further part of his life, except as the ostensible occasion, the base note of its void. A side trip to a down-at-heels seaside café, maybe on the island of his first love, is an excursion without words, with a prettily quiet indie song “Everything Trying” by Damien Jurado, a benign, nodding-off sort of tune which, placed right here, in this moment of the film, feels like a knife in the heart: I’ll be sailing on your deep blue eye. A woman or a drag queen or a grotesque at a table grabs his hand and hangs on. She’s missing a tooth, is dressed in mauve gauzy finery. Startled, Jep looks down at her a moment before taking his hand back gently and walking away. This is the first time in the film that he’s been unlinked from the high life of which he has become master, just as he has become master of the void. Here, his elegant sartorial suit is like a sequin on a horse apple and a young man gives him a long, menacing stare. The girl’s beauty, fatally striking into him so long ago, and the deep blue eye, these are of the earth, whereas great iconic Rome is history, denatured. The flamingos are nature, too, but, being in Rome, even if only passing through, they are grotesques twisting their serpentine necks. My  heart’s  in  the  Highlands,  my  heart  is  not  here / My  heart’s  in  the  Highlands  a-chasing  the  deer is as thought pre-lapsarian as Jep’s bedroom ceiling which, as he contemplates it lying in bed, transforms from blank emptiness into a scintillating aqua sea. And when Jep hosts a party and his guests are dancing madly, he says The trains at our parties are the best ones in Rome because our trains go nowhere and adds, Look at all these people. This wild life. It is not the Highlands, nor blue sea, nor is his heart in it; but for Jep it is ROME OR DEATH. Also, Rome as death. But though Rome has seen so much death it goes on—not least, in this movie, in this manifold mega-performance, through a casual series of anti-entropic performances: song, dance, photography, painting, circus acts, theater, acting, writing, and more—co-optationall testifying to the sway of what is quasimythified as the great beauty, the inscrutable root of both art and sex. (The off-set is the saint's religious passion with its performative Catholic ritual and its ascetic interpretation of the Root.)

 

Jep, who was 26 when his single novel created a stir, wanders because, like modern Rome itself, his roots have dried up. He sees everything because he is empty (at least empty on top, like a well) and open, as Rome is. His boss, the dwarf Dadina, a magazine editor, arranges for him to interview Sister Maria, another grotesque, whose ancient, milky, blind-like eyes barely open. She is the pure anti-type of the flâneur. Diminutive of person, ambiguously huge of soul. When she is enthroned in a church, receiving obsequies, her feet dangle and swing and a poor little sandal falls off and rattles in the hush—she is like Rosa Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom, in the too tall chair in which she resembles a crucified child. At Jep’s dinner table, her assistant explains that, as part of the sister’s devotion to the poor, she only eats a small amount of roots each day. On the terrace the morning of the flamingo visitation, she asks Jep why he never wrote another book and he answers because I was looking for the great beauty. . . . I didn’t find it. Then Sister Maria says do you know why I only eat roots? I eat them because roots are important. When she expels her breath, the flamingos fly away over the Coliseum in the breaking light.

 

Magic

 

 The high life in The Great Beauty is reality-based, distinct from the surrealism in La Dolce Vita. But on and off the film hallucinates a magic realism that is pagan and animalistic—scored with tumbling calliopes, bubbling spirit music much like Nino Rota’s. The flamingos belong to the same uncanny “wild life” as the astonishingly huge giraffe that amazes Jep one night as it stands in a dim ochre circle of light at the Baths of Caracalla. Jep doffs his hat to this giraffe; his face softens with wonder and humility. He has come to visit an old friend here, a circus master, a trickster and magician. When he asks Can you really make that giraffe disappear his friend answers yes, of course! Make me disappear, too, says Jep. The magician responds, Jep, Jep, it’s only a trick! Jep’s friend Romano appears. He has come to say goodbye; he is leaving Rome after 40 years because Rome has disappointed me. Jep is pained by the news but recovers quickly. They say goodbye and he watches Romano walk off into the night. When he turns back to the circle of light, the giraffe has disappeared . . . a shock, another void. The movie itself enchants and conjures. (There is charlatanry in creativity, the magician says.). Then is gone.

 

Jep’s Crowd

 

In the glittering nighttime party following the sunlit opening choral scene—typical of the film’s chiaroscuro—Jep’s roof sparkles with impossible hauteur. Bare-chested, suited, gaudy, elegant, young, old, fat, thin; pedestrian-seeming and/or grotesque: the partiers drink, snort powders, gyrate madly to pounding techno music (Sorrentino: “Parties are the epitome of . . . the sense of emptiness to which we are irremediably attracted”).  Why, there’s even a dwarf toss, featuring Dadina, a Roman tradition! There are girls on pedestals, exhibitionists oozing themselves under glass. A fat Fellini donna explodes out of a cake shaped like the Coliseum with a big 6 on one boob, 5 on the other. Jep is suddenly framed alone, solitary in the pandemonium, which seems to have birthed him, though he is maestro of the fete. He is jaded but more distinguished looking than anyone else in sight. His handsome clown face, with its commedia dell’arte plasticity, wears a droll look but there is always intelligence in the eyes. The pulsing music fades and in a voice over he says, When I was young, my friends asked each other what we like most in life. They all answered pussy. But what I liked most in life was the smell of old people’s houses. Then he’s reclaimed by the artificial wildness. The camera pulls back and from a great distance we watch the rooftop squirming in the sky like phenomena in a gemstone. 

 

Dadina is one of Jep’s intimates, his close coterie who, when spectaculars are exhausted, relaxes with him at frequent dinners on the terrace of his apartment. Besides Romano—a sweet, pudgy campangna desperate to succeed as a writer (the reverse side of Jep, whose literary ambition lies in sweet decay), inside out with unrequited love for a sleek coke-snorting beanpole who’s all disdain (she’s never kissed me once)—there is Viola, a widowed rich socialite (reputed owner of Himmler’s yacht), mother of a mad son who’s breaking her heart. When she pleads with Jep talk to him, speak to him, maybe you can help him, Jep always blows her off.  Dadina’s poet consort is there, a mute shade who, Jep explains, never speaks because He only listens. (Poetry and silence are thus bonded.) There is the wiry bourgeois mogul with his easy-going yet uneasy-in-her-skin wife, who explains she’s changed her hair color because I was feeling very Pirandello. (Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Flaubert, Breton, Pirandello, D’Annunzio are all mentioned conversationally throughout the film like friends who are out of town.) Any evening can have its random guests, maybe Viola’s girlfriend lover, or a chic blonde from Milano. There is Stefania, 53 year-old self-proclaimed supreme mother/wife and Feminista, whose self-regard gets laid on just one layer too thick one wine-soaked night, forcing Jep to press a few chastening facts—like how she first made a name for herself in the toilet stalls at university; how her husband lunches daily with another man he’s been publicly in love with for years; how she is never home with her children because she’s handed them over to nannies and chauffeurs. When Jep flatly proposes that in reality Stefani’s life is in the same disappointed tatters as theirs, that instead of this me, me, me and showing off—instead of lecturing us and treating us with contempt you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair. We can only look each other in the face and kid each other a little bit . . . don’t you agree? she staggers punch drunk into the terrace shadows. (When she gets home she dives naked into her pool to sober up, cool off, or treat herself to a spiritual bath.) The other dinner guests have taken no satisfaction in Stefania’s practically begged for comeuppance. They shrink sadly back in chorus into their cushions and dull wine. Rome’s high-lifers are basically kind . . . bitchy and catty, but without real meanness or schadenfreude. If snobbery cossets and pets, they have a sense of collectivity and good will. In fact, this is how Stefania begins . . . she begins describing Rome as the only Marxist place left on the planet, a collective where no one can rise or excel, regardless of their accomplishment, everybody sinking back in a murky pond of mediocrity. Much later in the film, when Stefania and Jep dance close at a high-society wedding, he asks her if they’ve ever slept together. She demurs don’t be ridiculous and he charmingly says, what a shame . . . we’ll have to do something about that. And he promises her that the future is marvelous.  

 

Almost Like Falling in Love

 

Jep visits an old friend at a strip club that the friend manages. The friend affectionately and proudly proclaims his daughter, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), who works as a stripper there. He asks Jep if he’ll find Ramona a rich husband (Jep objects…he’s not a pimp) since she’s 40 years old, still stripping and never seems to have enough money, though he has no clue what she does with it since she doesn’t drink or do drugs. After a silhouetted striptease, Ramona, dark, sultry, and beautiful, tattooed, hard, and wary, arrives at the table.  She’s smug and challenging toward Jep, who’s deferential and polite without fail. But he must find her compelling because he’s soon standing outside the gate of her house, watching her float in her pool. When she sees him, she accuses him of stalking her and asks if he wants sex. He responds, doesn’t anybody ever want to just talk to you? And she says no…that’s never happened to me.  He invites her to lunch and next, they’re dining at an elegant presumably discrete restaurant full of Rome’s rich and famous where Ramona is impressed because Jep knows everybody and everybody knows him. He tells her to pay attention without seeming to, to a small table with a flirting priest and a nun, remarking it’s amazing what you learn about the Religious living amidst so many Catholic institutions. Viola’s mad son stops by their table and volleys selected quotes on Death by great writers. Ramona is more and more uncomfortable…when the mad son asks who can you believe if not the great writers, Jep shrugs that things are way too complicated for any one person to understand. He takes Ramona to a party with the biggest art collectors in Rome, a mobbed affair where the highlight is the performance of a caterwauling and enraged little girl hurling buckets of paint at a gigantic canvas she then smears with her body and a long-handled big brush to make an abstract expressionist painting. Ramona, déclassé and cheap in a see-thru nude body suit (seeing her on Jep’s arm, Viola whispers to her girlfriend Jep has become so disappointing . . .), is upset because the little girl is crying, but Jep cynically tells her not to be ridiculous, that child is making millions. The incentive that works for art is money. What makes art work is, in this case, rage (child labor). But Jep has money and no rage, and is fundamentally resigned to nothingness until the widower of his first love shows up needing to be healed because his late wife’s diary is obsessed . . . only with Jep. (Both men start sobbing. ) In the course of The Great Beauty, niente is said many many times. “Nothing,” Jep says, was the subject of a book Flaubert wanted to write and never did. Nothing can be lived but can’t be written. “Niente” is embedded in the dialogue again and again. It’s part of Jep’s procedure of formal grief when he offers his sympathies, saying in the days to come when you feel the void . . .

 

Jep and Ramona walk away to a grotto where a scholarly, aristocratic young man is leaning 

on a cane contemplating a little pool. Jep asks do you have the box? And the young man answers the box is always with me. The three of them leave the party and walk purposefully through resonant empty streets. When they arrive at a grand palazzo or villa, the young man lays down the box he’s been carrying like a small coffin and opens it to keys ordered and arrayed. He takes one and twists it in the palace door and he pushes it open with his cane. They enter catacombs, marmoreal corridors, tenebrous vaults full of the busts of emperors, patricians, statues of looming goddesses and gods, spookily lit by a lamp the young man lifts like a torch. They wander to Bizet’s Symphony in C . . . Tanaquil le Clercq could bourée out of the shadows . . . Ramona lifts her own lamp, wafting like a musketeer, her naked suit covered by a floor length blue cloak with a Medici pouf collar. Her usually wary face is open with amazement and looks like the center of a flower. Jep’s face sags off the bones (botox maintenance notwithstanding). He stops at the painting of a very young woman offering a high tiny breast—Raphael’s La fornarina— and gazes a long time. He arrives in a room lit as by Caravaggio, where three living princesses, maybe three generations of the same family of princesses, play cards at a green baize table like gold candle flames in an inner curtain of dark, portraying persistence and perishability like three Mrs. Havishams to whom Jep pays respects without breaking stride. They’re a motif of The Great Beauty, of eternal Rome built on built on built…like the exhibit Jep visits and maybe writes about for Dadina: quotidian photos of a man whose father took a picture of him every single day never missing one. And when the father died, the man kept up his project and has taken one photo of himself each day so far. the thousands of morphing pictures pasted in the recesses of the Villa Giulia like a giant flip book of aging. When Ramona asks the gentleman Keeper of The Keys how come you get to keep all of these he answers because I am trusted. It is a resonant moment. It says something about Rome’s deep social constitution and endurance, a quality that persists even if there is so little monied nobility left that some nobles rent themselves out for parties. 

 

Roma O Morte

 

On the terrace with Ramona, Jep sees superimposed on her face the blue-eyed lily-like beauty, the innocence and youth, of his teen-age love, Elisa De Santis, who has just died. Ramona, too, with her worn and guilty beauty, is about to die. Jep asks her what she spends all her money on and she says I spend all my money to cure myself. She stays the night with him and he says he’s forgotten what it was like loving someone. They lie in bed staring at the ceiling and he asks do you see it, do you see the sea? To please him, she says she does.  Each has seen the fragility in the other, the crisis under the skin (and this is what brings him to her, not some ironic pulling of her low stripper life to his orbiting hauteur.) Her death occurs off-camera—unmentioned, in stride with Jep’s life. It was nice not making love, it was nice just loving each other, she had said. We know she’s gone when someone offers condolences to her father sitting wracked with grief one night at an outdoor café. A jazz combo plays “Ramona” by Lele Marchitelli, The Great Beauty’s music director. 

 

At the mad boy’s funeral, Jep, a pall bearer, had wept under the weight of death with ostentatious grief—this despite his strictures against weeping at funerals in his Cicero-like instructions to Ramona on proper funeral procedure (a high society event, par excellence). Age and death are getting to him. After all, death is everywhere in the great sarcophagus of Rome.

 

He sits aft by himself on a massive yacht that is maybe Himmler’s—Himmler of the Holocaust and sorrowful songs. It’s the end of the aria of The Great Beauty, the cabaletta part where things speed-up, where whatever’s left to say gets said. The yacht cruises lugubriously, hardly moving. When it passes a lighthouse Jep sees Elisa, and in its verticality envisions Sister Maria struggling to advance her 104 year-old body up the Scala Sancta, the sacred stairs, to a painted crucifixion. Then he’s strolling along the Tiber, and in a voice over says it always ends, with death. But first there was life . . . beneath the blah blah blah. It’s all settled, beneath the chitter chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear . . . haggard inconstant flashes of beauty . . . the embarrassment of being in the world. But, Jep says, I don’t deal with what lies beyond. Therefore, let this novel begin. Even if, as he said earlier, things are way too complicated for any one person to understand.

 

1A 2013 film directed by Paolo Sorrentino, who wrote the story and co-wrote the screen play with Umberto Contarello. Starring Toni Servillo. Cinematography by Luca Bigazzi. 

 

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