Finally, a mesmerising film worthy of being called ‘great’ has reached our cinema screens. Forget the listless track of American-made films vying for the Best Picture Oscar award, which really only reflects the sensibilities of Hollywood – for a thought-provoking film which gives even cynics faith in the vibrancy of movies, you can’t do better than the Italian Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, The Great Beauty. By KALIM RAJAB.
“Up with life, down with reminiscence,” writes a grand Roman poet in his youth in The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s Italian masterpiece of sublime decadence and decay. But decades later, as the film opens, all around him his aging companions and fellow pleasure-seekers are now slowly experiencing something different. As they gather amid sybaritic excess, their thoughts and their dreams increasingly question whether it is all a hollowed-out shell. “What’s the matter with nostalgia?” asks one of them, “It’s the only thing left for those of us who have no faith in the future.”
Sorrentino’s tour de force is a lyrical ode to that other great examination of Roman decline, La Dolce Vita. Like Fellini’s 1960 epic, it is impossible to ignore the poignant subtext hovering beneath the wondrous exterior of Rome’s splendours – that of a city, a lifestyle, perhaps an entire continent, in terminal decline; of an age which has passed.
The most self-aware of the companions who elegantly convene at each other’s soirees is Jeb Gambardella, a jaded socialite playboy who might have stepped out of Fellini’s equally poignant companion piece, 8 ½. Jeb is a writer of fierce intelligence, who as a young man wrote a single, unaccompanied novella, The Human Apparatus, to huge acclaim. Now, as he celebrates his 65th birthday, he finds himself with all the outward appendages signalling material success – a breathtaking terrace apartment flowing out onto the Colosseum, being confidant to the patrician nobility, having entree to the finest the city has to offer- but a nagging core. Jeb takes great pride, in great beauty. His suits are handcrafted by Catelanni (in real life, the great sartorialist Gianni Agnelli’s personal tailor.) He’s personal friends with Rome’s “keeper of the gates”, who safeguards the keys to all the city’s sculptural treasures, such as those housed in the Villa of the Priory of the Knights of Malta, and who lets Jeb luxuriate in witnessing the treasures alone, and up close. He delights in the pleasant company of the most physically ravishing beauties, much like Marcello Mastroianni’s characters did. But like those characters, his cynical nature senses that something is amiss.
Watch: The Great Beauty trailer
Jeb is like Herman Hesse’s Siddartha, when the Brahmin prince for a brief period succumbs to the temptations of success and riches offered by the material world, but does so while contenting himself that it is all a frivolous game, and one that he does not demean himself by partaking of. Just as Siddartha rationalises to himself that he is different from and superior to others less enlightened than himself – whom he watches with a “slightly mocking disdain”- so has Jeb carelessly done so for the best part of his life. While Rome has waited for his follow-up novel, and as people still quote devotedly from his earlier work, so has he quietly and elegantly forsaken his talent for the easy life of a gossip columnist.
The job offers him some definite perks – in fact perhaps greater monetary and hedonistic reward than that of a serious novelist. But, as he is forced to ingratiate himself with ever more mediocre and self-obsessed artists (like one whose entire act consists of headbutting herself into the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla) so does he sense that he has demeaned himself for too long. The self-awareness in him, and the awareness perhaps of growing age, gnaws away at him and at his unfulfilled promise. Asked why he could never write another novel, he offers, “I was looking for the great beauty, and I never found it.” Later, he adds with a sigh, “At my age, beauty isn’t enough.”
During yet another glittering party, he discusses with his aristocratic friend – not without envy – of Flaubert’s attempt to write an entire novel about nothing; an attempt which the master was ultimately unable to do. He senses, perhaps with too much sentimentality, that he has lived Flaubert’s novelistic attempt.
As Jeb’s thoughts drift, so too do they seem to symbolise the wider malaise of Rome, indeed of Europe. The Eternal City has seldom been shown in such loving, beautiful focus than here. But arguably the more important scenes are those which, by contrast, are ones of surreal emptiness and disorientation, bringing to mind the influential European film Last Year at Marienbad. As Jeb and his companions wander through these vistas, their meditations become an allegory for an aging, eclipsed Europe, on the cusp of becoming anachronistic. When we see the aging Count and Countess Collona, hiding behind their grand titles but in reality in penury and reduced to being ‘nobles for hire’ at dinner parties, we get a sense of the continent’s glory days being in the past. “The only interesting people here are the tourists,” Jeb offers, and indeed the tourists we see are mostly from the New World.
Visually, The Great Beauty is uncommonly affecting. Sorrentino and cameraman Luca Bigazzi have created a canvas achingly beautiful one minute, bizarrely voyeuristic the next. It makes for a film which is thought-provoking, absurd, listless, discordant – and thoroughly exhilarating. Watching it, in the words of Time Magazine, “gives even cynics a faith in the vibrancy of movies.” Europe may be becoming outdated, but its filmmakers certainly are not. Watch it while you can. DM
The Great Beauty is showing at Ster-Kinekor Nouveau cinemas throughout the country.
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