In an earlier post I promised to discuss some of the reasons that I believe that The Great Beauty is a cinematic marvel. Among other reasons, the film works on three different levels simultaneously. First, it is a melancholy tale of a man looking back on his life who knows he has committed himself to almost nothing he thinks is of real importance. Turning sixty-five as the movie begins, this man, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is acutely aware of what really matters in life, his sensibility making his own self-judgment more painful. When he sees an installation of photographs of a young man taken every day of his life, Jep nearly breaks down, presumably overcome by the significance of a human life’s fleeting course. In contrast, he thinks his life is “nothing.” He has failed to live up to his promise as a writer, dedicating himself instead to fashion, partying, and detached observation. But, as the film establishes with his many insights on the lives of others, he knows the difference between substance and show.
What really matters, then, in human life as a whole, is the second level of the film. What matters, according to Jep, is not the “blah, blah, blah”, the “chitter chatter” that has taken over the lives of so many of his acquaintances. On the contrary, family, as he tells a young woman, is “a beautiful thing.” Yet there is hardly a trace of family in the film; instead there is an array of single people, including Jep, or failed marriages, detached individuals carelessly coupling in an urban landscape. “Roots are important,” says the saintly figure at the end, but in the Rome depicted here, roots have all but vanished. One of Jep’s friends, a failed writer whom no one appreciates even though he finally produces something of value, gives up and abandons Rome in favor of his hometown. What saves Jep are in fact a few good friends, including his editor and his housekeeper, offering a substitute for home. There’s a poignant scene where an aristocrat goes to see a museum-like automated recreation of her childhood home. Hers was a childhood that was “happy and carefree,” in contrast to the children depicted in the film, who are mostly orphaned, neglected (except by nuns), or exploited. These children, the younger generation, clearly represent the future in the film. When Jep learns that the girl he has always loved has died, he asks her husband if they had had children. They had not, responds the grieving husband; she could have had them but he himself was barren. Jep responds that he could have had children, a bizarre remark under the circumstances, since her husband has just confessed his wife’s lingering love for Jep and relative indifference to her own spouse. So a child and a family born of love never came to be, and two (younger adult) members of the next generation whom we meet in the film both die, one a suicide, the other from a probable drug overdose. “Everything is dying, people younger than me. I am not cut out for this city.”
In the Rome of today, the recourse of parties and loveless sex is a narcotic masking all the meaning that is missing, at least from the lives of Jep’s acquaintances among the idle rich. It is ironic that Jep came to Rome because he was in some way attracted to this decadent lifestyle, aspects of which stretch back at least as far as Nero. But something seems more seriously amiss in contemporary Rome, even as its ancient penchant for decadence and spectacle persists. What have we got left besides fashion and pizza, wonders one character. A key theme of the movie is death, starting from a very early scene where we see a sign proclaiming Garibaldi’s Roma o morto, and continuing with the deaths of three of the main characters. At the same time, in the glimpse of Roman society we witness, the three foci of Italian life: family, church, and community are all nearly absent. This is the third level of the film, its commentary on the self-absorption and preoccupation with pleasure and show that seem to have largely displaced the spirituality that once infused the art and churches of the past. These remnants of a different time now stand as a reminder of what has been lost, overshadowed in the present by spectacle and performance. Jep, as we have noted, was once much taken up with such contemporary pursuits (to his growing discomfort), even coaching a young woman on the proper performance at a funeral: “Don’t cry. Don’t steal the show from the family,” he advises her, crying in spite of himself.
This idea of performance is underscored in the first party scene, where two actors are talking. One tells his companion that he has played a pope and a junkie, and they refer to a former TV showgirl who now “does nothing.” There are no good female roles. This dialogue is no accident. It underscores the indiscriminate nature of performance, while introducing the demeaning objectification (and sometimes self-objectification) of women in the film. Contrast that to the modestly dressed nuns and yearningly beautiful depictions of Madonna and child, visions that unfold before us as we see Rome through Jep’s eyes. The reference to doing “nothing” in the present says it all. Yet it must be said that there are important variations on “nothing” in the film. The ex-showgirl does nothing. Flaubert wanted to write a book about nothing. In contrast to his one important novel, Jep is writing nothing substantial at all. But when he encounters a rare loving couple who want to stay home together in the evening and do “nothing,” he exclaims how beautiful they are. The point is that unlike this couple, most people in contemporary Rome have traded substance for vacuity. They have embraced metaphorical trains going nowhere. Countless examples of great beauty can be found, in Rome and in the emotional depth of human life, but they lie as if unseen beneath the prevailing obsession with spectacle. “This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life,” says Jep at the end. “Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world, blah, blah, blah. . .” Life, that is, bringing with it misery and beauty, lies beneath a deceptive facade. At the very end of this passage that concludes the movie, Jep observes, presumably about the chitter chatter and the noise, “After all, it’s just a trick [trucco, or make-up].” Tricks, we are meant to conclude, illusions, are what too many people, at least in the affluent West, take for what matters.