For a movie called The Great Beauty (2013), there is an awful lot of ugliness in it. The movie, which is about self-indulgence and superficiality is filled with the vainest, most self-involved people in Rome, and many of them are grotesque, with bulbous features and decaying parts, a society of zombies in search of temporary highs, stumbling forward in the hazy darkness, powered by drugs or worse, or the excited glimpse of their own reflection. Even the good people are ugly, like an ancient nun with but two rodent-like teeth, except her ugliness is noble, dignified because she doesn’t care. The others wear their hideousness like a badge of honor, shoving their bad makeup and drooping faces in front of whichever set of eyes they come across.
The prince of this horror show is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), an empty man, 65-years-young, who knows he is empty, knows he could do something about it, but simply doesn’t. He presides over miserable, trancelike parties and crows, “The dance trains at our parties are the best in Rome because they don’t go anywhere.” He has spent a life climbing to be the king of the unexamined. The one thing he forgot to do is kill the part of his soul that finds this abhorrent. He stares at his ceiling, lying next to someone whose name he barely recalls and sees the ocean: something free, something deeper than he’ll every be, something of great beauty.
The movie is directed by Paolo Sorrentino as an unofficial sequel to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), which was about a young writer stuck in excess and ennui in Rome. Now the writer is older (Gambardella writes for a newspaper) and has lived the life we all feared La Dolce Vita’s Marcello was destined for. He breezes through his job (he interviews an uproariously self-important performance artist whose act consists of running, blindfolded, into a stone wall), but his vocation is being seen at the right parties and clubs and having the right people come to his parties and clubs. These people aren’t his friends; they’re barely acquaintances, and many he can’t stand. Most times, he can hardly stand himself as each fleeting immediate experience becomes more and more fleeting, and the time devoted to them becomes inversely related to the joy he continues to derive from them. Once he was a great writer or could have been. His only novel, of contested quality, was published years ago and has since vanished into obscurity. He doesn’t do that kind of writing anymore. The city distracts him, he says; he’s too bored.
The people who could provide inspiration and maturity, he marginalizes including Viola (Pamela Villoresi), who he deems needs the kind of help he can’t be bothered to provide; Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the stripper he uses then discards when their relationship threatens to become meaningful; and Ramono (Carlo Verdone), the overmatched playwright who idolizes Gambardella and who Gambardella takes for granted. The only person Gambardella wants to truly get to know—his aloof and stylish neighbor—is not who he thought he was at all. Each new disillusion convinces him to stay in his cynical, self-absorbed cave, a place where he can take potshots at those who put themselves out there (his mocking of the performance artist, his evisceration of an intellectual colleague) while never truly putting himself out there at all.
Is this man a sociopathic monster? I would imagine that he resembles many of us. He wanders the world, thinking he’s meant for better things but unwilling to give up the comfort of where he is. Nothing he does is malicious (except for the tearing down of the intellectual, which is cruel); he’s just a man who has been convincing himself for 30 years that the time he could have turned his life around has passed. It’s very sad and yet quite funny, sometimes at once. Gambardella’s presence is required at a funeral and he lays out his elaborate rules for attending a burial. One must always remember that one is on stage at these things, one mustn’t cry, lest one overshadow the grieving family. This rule sequence, which is accompanied with a montage of his date modeling black dresses for his approval as if it were Pretty Woman (1990), ends at the funeral where Gambardella, overcome with the realization of life’s fleetingness, breaks one of the rules. I don’t believe it’s Sorrentino’s purpose for us to hate Gambardella (and Servillo’s droll, icily charming and ultimately sympathetic portrayal makes that hard to do) but take heed through him. If we are frustrated by his lack of ambition despite his obvious intelligence, then he shares that frustration with us. If we deride his imperfection, his ugliness, we would do well to at least check it against the imperfections in ourselves.
Surrounding these ugly people is some of the most gorgeous cinematography of the year and one of the best visual designs. The camera of cinematographer Luca Bigazzi has a plan for every scene: sometimes it swoops and sweeps, creating a frenzied but pointless energy to the party scenes; sometimes it is dour and staid, as in a scene of an audience with a religious luminary; sometimes it is all worshipful angles and reverential lighting as when Gambardella (and the rest of Rome, it seems) visits his plastic surgeon for botox that is slyly shot as if it were an audience with a religious luminary. Color pops off the screen in the dramatic lighting of particular Roman palaces and statues and in the costumes. Gambardella, the peacock, is always resplendent in pastels and bright colors, bold ties and stylish hats. For a movie that is about a man who doesn’t know what he wants, every choice in the filmmaking is confident and definitive, a stylistic rebuke to its main character’s impotence.
In the end the movie represents a great merging of storytelling and story as a man is besot on all sides by great beauty but chooses his prison cell of superficiality. These people, Gambardella included, do not have great beauty, only a great illusion, one that Gambardella has long since recognized as such but is unwilling to give up. The real beauty may be that it’s never too late to leave one for the other; one just has to realize that and do it.