Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty has two small yet important facets in common with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Both films begin with a profound quote that provides a key to the viewer for a full understanding of the film that follows. Both films use the music of “Dies Irae” (Requiem for my Friend, which includes Lacrimosa 2) by Zbigniew Preisner (the talented composer of Kieslowski’s Dekalog and The Three Colors trilogy) and Henryk Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony.
Just as Mallick used an interesting quote from the Book of Job, the opening quote for The Great Beauty is from Sorrentino’s favorite author Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night.
The quote is “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.”
The ‘travel’ in The Great Beauty is the figurative journey of Jep Gambardella, a journalist who at the age of 20 wrote a novel that made him a celebrity and propelled him into a cosmic trajectory of Rome’s high-life filled with the glitterati and the cognoscenti for the next 45 years without having to write another novel of substance. And he is celebrating his 65th birthday, early in the film, with a birthday bash that many of us, including the Beatles, who sang When I am 64, would dream of enjoying.
There is “imagination” of the successful journalist Jep that Sorrentino introduces us, the viewers, for the first time, smiling at the camera, a lit cigarette dangling precariously between his teeth, dressed in fine clothes cut to perfection by the best outfitters, in the midst of cavorting men and women with loud music playing somewhere on a terrace of a building in the center of Rome. Jep has it all--the women, the reputation, the money, the circle of friends, and a lovely apartment near the Colosseum. To anyone who is familiar with Rome—that is the best address one could dream of.
For those who have seen Sorrentino’s earlier works The Consequence of Love and This Must be the Place, the director and his regular cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, the central figures of the two movies are always shying away from people and a figurative distance is intentionally created on screen by the talented cinematographer between individuals. In The Great Beauty, in contrast, Sorrentino and Bigazzi show the central character Jep surrounded by people in close proximity. Is it a reversal of positions? And yet Jep the central character is alone as in the previous films. In Jep’s own words “I'm not a misogynist, I'm a misanthrope.” He loves women but distrusts or has a disdain for people irrespective of their sex. The visuals are playing a trick on the mind of the viewer. As is the music...but more on that later.
The “delusion and the pain” comes ‘the morning after’—to quote and recall the 1986 Sidney Lumet film with that name. Jep, who is dancing in the evenings, heads home to sleep when the children of the city are waking up to go to school and less privileged workers are cleaning up the neighborhood preparing for the day that is dawning.
The “delusion and the pain” also comes when great art is equated with the bizarre, as in the case of a screaming young girl who is considered a genius of an art form, for her quixotic ability of throwing cans of paint on a massive empty canvas as her fans watch the process of “art creation” with awe and reverence. It is possible that Jep, the journalist, writes about her extraordinary abilities. It is also possible that Jep, the journalist, writes about the naked woman who is considered a major theatre personality who rushes forward like a mad bull towards a stone wall only to butt her head against it with a resounding sound that seems so real, bloody and painful. Sorrentino is indeed underscoring the “delusion and the pain” with humor as he always does, trusting that his film’s viewer would keep Céline's quotation in focus.
One of the finest punches of left-handed humorous self-compliments comes from Jep himself: “To this question, as kids, my friends always gave the same answer: "Pussy". Whereas I answered "The smell of old people's houses". The question was "What do you really like the most in life?" I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.” There is yet another favorite sequence for this critic. The ladies’ man Jep encounters the famous French actress Fanny Ardant with an unusual hairdo and exclaims “Madame Ardant!” The actress looks at him from head to toe and slowly responds “Bonne nuit!” (Good night!) and walks away with a smile.
But in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino has positioned his lead character Jep as an intellectual searching for beauty in a city that can truly boast of true man-made beauty with its sculptures, its fountains, its legendary buildings, its history, its beautiful women propped up by costly botox injections, its river Tiber, and wait, the incredible neighboring city state of Vatican and with its population of the pious priests, Cardinals and nuns who intermingle with the other Roman friends of Jep. And since Sorrentino is not a gnostic like Malick, Jep interviews a toothless “104-year-old” nun “who lives on roots” (note the layer of humor in that factoid) who seems to have an odd visual resemblance to Mother Teresa but has found time to have read Jep’s famous book and utters pedestrian and inane comments. The agnostic Sorrentino goes a step further when Jep the journalist interacts with a Cardinal, tipped to be the next Pope, who prefers to give a discourse on a cooking recipe rather than matters of theology.
Forget the visuals. Concentrate on the music in The Great Beauty. Sorrentino deliberately chooses to play pieces of music that directors such as Malick and Kieslowski used to lift their audiences to a lofty spiritual level. Then Sorrentino contrasts those moments with loud banal party music when he chooses to provide a contrast of life’s reality apparently noted by Jep during his past 45 years. It is not without meaning that Jep’s close friend asks Jep to find a husband for his daughter in her forties who performs in a strip club. There are several constant connections between the sacred and the profane.
Towards the end of the film Jep states “This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah... It's 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... Beyond there is what lies beyond. And I don't deal with what lies beyond. Therefore... let this novel begin. After all... it's just a trick. Yes, it's just a trick.” Probably those are the words of Jep’s second novel yet to be written at the age of 65. Earlier Jep had told the viewer “I was looking for the great beauty, but I didn’t find it.”
Perhaps a true Sorrentino admirer would prefer his lesser known Consequences of Love (2004) which towards its enigmatic end had the words “Sadness descends upon him and he starts to think...” describing the best friend of the protagonist, working at correcting a fault perched high up on an electric pylon, alone, battling biting cold winds.
To understand Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty one needs to revert to his favorite writer Céline whose words from the same literary work that opens the film explains it all : “In the whole of your absurd past you discover so much that's absurd, so much deceit and credulity, that it might be a good idea to stop being young this minute, to wait for youth to break away from you and pass you by, to watch it going away, receding in the distance, to see all its vanity, run your hand through the empty space it has left behind, take a last look at it, and then start moving, make sure your youth has really gone, and then calmly, all by yourself, cross to the other side of Time to see what people and things really look like.” Céline has countless admirers and detractors. His detractors call him a fascist, anti-Semitist, and a bigot. Like Sorrentino’s characters, Céline’s fictional characters are constantly facing anxiety and failure.
Without any doubt, both The Tree of Life and The Great Beauty are truly majestic works of cinema: one optimistic, the other misanthropic. Sorrentino is one of finest filmmakers alive in Italy. And like very few other directors he writes his own original screenplays, in this particular case, taking the aid of another screenplay professional, Umberto Contarello. The misanthropy and the negativism that prevails in The Great Beauty are the only reason that this critic found less staggeringly well-made films, such as Still Life (2013) and Tangerines (2013), products of less talented directors than Sorrentino to be offering a whiff of oxygen.
P.S. The Great Beauty is on the author’s list of his top 10 movies of 2013. Two earlier Sorrentino films—Consequences of Love and This Must be the Place--were reviewed earlier on this blog. The films mentioned in this review The Tree of Life, Dekalog, Three Colors, Still Life and Tangerines were also reviewed earlier on this blog.