The Great Beauty: a journey to the end of the night
by Camillo De Marco
- Paolo Sorrentino’s film is an exploration of a wonderful Rome seen through the eyes of a cynical and disenchanted Virgil: Toni Servillo
“I was looking for great beauty and I didn’t find it,” says viveur Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) in one of his many reflections on life. The main character’s philosophy is encompassed in this sentence that gave Paolo Sorrentino’s film its title, in competition during this year’s festival in Cannes. Existence is made up of flashes of truth and spells to be gathered during the course of a nocturnal walk engulfed in the splendour of the eternal city. Everything else is emptiness, and it is nice to let oneself be lulled by the surrender.
This void which is representative of the crumbling and slowing down of the western world, was captured in the Sorrentino style which has become widely recognised around the world, including narrow shots in long sequences interrupted by vehicles coming from behind, long zooms, vertiginous dollies, and an indefatigable and opulent series of tampered looks and calm visions. The itinerary the director offers his spectator is vertiginous and resonates with that initial citation from Celine’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.” It is much the same for cinema.
This journey through an awe-striking Rome, accompanied by a disenchanted and cynical Virgil, a journalist who wrote one successful book twenty years ago and then gave up on his talent in order to fill his lazy existence with nocturnal parties. “Condemned to sensitivity,” as he himself puts it, Jep sought to become the king of parties in order to have the “power to undo them.” His sarcasm touches everyone: social climbers, fallen aristocrats, intellectuals, body artists and politicians. But the more he feels distant, the more he becomes engulfed in this zombie humanity which drinks, dances, takes cocaine and talks without ever having a conversation on the magnificent terraces of this impassive city. A cruel anti-dolce vita.
We don’t know if Jep will ever write a new novel or whether his fall is yet another wheel in the massive apparatus which is moving all the characters around him: the limitless and vulgar ones, but also those who possess a degree of humanity, like the enigmatic and rich forty-year-old ballerina (Sabrina Ferilli) who is hiding a secret, or the romantic and defeated writer (Carlo Verdone) who, tired of Roman salons, decides to go back to the countryside. And a clergy, not only made up of nuns moving in the background like smiling butterflies, but also filled with primates. Jep also has spiritual questions to ask religious representatives, but he knows he will get no answer on the subject of vacuity when it comes to clergymen.
With The Great Beauty [+see also:
interview: Paolo Sorrentino
film profile], Paolo Sorrentino has been forced to confront La terrazza by Ettore Scola, which was in competition in Cannes in 1980 (award for best screenplay) and La dolce vita by Federico Fellini, which received the Palme d’Or in 1960. Fifty years is too long a time to make any comparisons, but the capacity to represent a segment of society and a state of mind with slow, deforming power together with eloquent realism is certainly similar.
(Translated from Italian)
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