The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) has just won a Golden Globe award for best foreign film of 2013, and a nomination for an Oscar for best foreign film. These honors are richly deserved. In my view the film is a cinematic masterpiece, a kind of visual 19th century novel, despite the fact that its repetitive images of decadent revelry and vapid spectacle in contemporary Rome have exasperated some critics and more viewers. In another post I will discuss some of the reasons for its greatness as a film, but here, I’d like to comment on its relation to La Dolce Vita.
The director of The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino, has acknowledged his admiration for Fellini, and one can certainly perceive that debt from a simple comparison. Both The Great Beauty and La Dolce Vita center on a protagonist who is a journalist and would be novelist, who spends most of his time observing the emptiness of a decadent society taken up with partying and spectacle. In my book, The Move Beyond Form, there is a chapter on art works since 1960 that remake or represent an earlier work. The cinematic example I used in that chapter is Shakespeare in Love as a remaking of Romeo and Juliet, but I could have written about The Great Beauty and La Dolce Vita as well. I argued there that contemporary artists do not necessarily see their work as a self-contained entity competing with an earlier self-contained entity, as if fueled by the “anxiety of influence.” Instead they present their work as existing on a continuum with the original, in a process of expansion in two directions. Their re-presentations probe the depth in the original while extending its reach into a new cultural context. This is to plunge into the meaning of the earlier work and to remake it with contemporary influences. It is a process that in part develops what was there but not fully there in the original, a widening and a deepening of what was already present in the earlier work.
This seems clearly the case of The Great Beauty, which extends the Existential angst of La Dolce Vita to the Rome of today. The earlier film explores the question of meaning in the industrial waste land of post-World War II Rome, with haunting images and symbols that underscore the contrast between Rome’s decadent present and its cultural past, now glimpsed only in fragments. The Great Beauty resurfaces the staggering beauty of the Roman past that La Dolce Vita had mostly obscured, as if to emphasize its contrast to the updated present, where hyper-eroticism and spectacle continue the decadent theme. The Great Beauty suggests that in present-day Rome an empty sensuality has displaced one that is resonant with meaning. Here, Fellini’s Existentialism is brought tragically up to date, an occasion for brooding about personal and cultural death.