Saturday, February 08, 2014

All Roads Lead To Rome

Toni Servillo in The Great Beatuy

"Late one night the club was heaving, I saw a vampire move across the floor.
Old and white with a silver cane lusting for youth through the mirror."
--The Mekons, "Club Mekon."

I stayed to the end of the credits of The Great Beauty (2013, directed by Paolo Sorrentino). The end credits wander lazily down the Tiber, coming to rest, eventually, on the Ponte Sant'Angelo. I don't want to read anything into this, because there's not really much symbolism here to decode. But it IS representative of the visual glory of Rome, something that is one of the film's primary concerns. It's also representative of the uneasy relationship between Italians and the Catholic Church, which is also one of the film's primary concerns. When, at last, it was done, a woman who had also stayed to the end asked me to describe what the film is about in three words. "Life," I said after a moment's reflection. "Death. Ennui." That's a gross oversimplification, because the film is also about art and movies and religion and how they all intersect in an Eternal City that has seen better days.

La grande bellezza follows Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a dissolute writer who has been living the high life in Rome for the last forty years. After his 65th birthday, he starts to question his life, which has consisted of empty partying, socializing without making connection, and drifting like a ghost through the monuments of Italy's past while caring nothing for the future. Jep is famous for his first novel, but hasn't written another. The question of why he hasn't written another hangs on the lips of many of the people he meets at the parties where he spends his evenings. Three events shock him out of his ennui. First, he's visited by the husband of his first lover, who claims that she never stopped loving him and viewed the husband she eventually married only as a "companion." Second, he becomes involved with the daughter of an old friend, a woman who works as a stripper even though she's into her forties. She hoards her money, and the reason she hoards it is one of the film's smaller mysteries. Finally, a famous Catholic missionary returns to Rome and Jep's editor wants an interview. The woman, known as "The Saint"--it's only a matter of time, says a Cardinal who seems more interested in cuisine than in Cardinal-ing--is brought to a dinner party at Jep's flat. Jep is a fabled host, and can pick and choose his guests. The question she has for Jep is the same one everyone has, and it shocks Jep into finding an answer...

Toni Servillo in The Great Beatuy

The Great Beauty is a wildly digressionary film. It follows dozens of narrative threads, often to dead ends--the couple who make a living as nobles for hire, for instance, or the magician who is rehearsing an act where he makes a giraffe disappear. Many of them resurface at the end. Many of them do not. This is not strictly speaking a linear narrative, but it's not the kind of narrative that fractures time, either (though it does have some flashbacks). This is a mosaic film, a picaresque, even. It's always watchable. It's almost always thrilling to watch. Those narrative excressences may not add to anything--though for the most part, I believe that they do--but they are almost all small pearls of story unto themselves. Thematically, they're linked by ideas about art, about beauty, about sex, about aging, about Rome itself, and about cinema. I think it's important, though the idea is never really developed, that the first languages spoken in this film are German, Japanese, and English. The film opens with a short vignette depicting a tour bus where one of the tourists drops dead. The image of Roma as a kind of theme park persists through out the film. The filmmakers are scrupulous about giving the audience a tour of the monuments. Besides, Rome has always been a cosmopolis. THE cosmopolis, actually, whether during the Roman Empire or the glory days of the Cinecitta. The fact that the first languages spoken in the film are not Italian is one of the movie's most nuanced jokes, given that Italian films were notorious for their international casts, always speaking their own languages and post-dubbed after the fact. In another scene at one of the film's many parties, a fading TV star is seen snorting lines of coke in the kitchen. After the party is over, she stumbles into the morning daylight, looks up, and sees jets tracing contrails across the sky. It's one of the best visual puns I've ever seen, but it contains a vague horror at the trap of ennui.

This is a funny film when it's not being dark and introspective. Hell, even then, too.

Toni Servillo in The Great Beatuy

This is a film that's completely intoxicated by art, whether the architecture and sculpture that forms a constant backdrop, or the modern design aesthetic of some its interiors, or the fashion design. There are several explicit discursions through art: first, in a vivid lampoon of performance art (and perhaps an explicit parody of Marina Abramovic) in which the artist smashes her head against a ruined aqueduct and the interview after when she tries to defend her art to Jep. Second, Jep takes Ramona (his friend's mysterious daughter) on a haunting late-night tour of the city's most beautiful buildings. The man who enables this carries a case full of keys, entrusted by the city's aging princesses (the horror fan in me associates these women, seen playing cards during the tour, with Argento's Three Mothers). Finally, at a party thrown by the owner of the city's premiere modern art gallery, we see a little girl who would rather become a veterinarian pushed into art by her snooty parents paint a picture as a party trick. She vents her rage at a huge canvas, attacking it with cans of paint and with her body. The end result is surprisingly astonishing, given that it's executed by a little girl who is crying with rage and frustration.

For a film so woven with religious imagery, La grande bellezza is a profane film, in the older meaning of that word. The Church is like every other Roman monument here. Subject to both awe and lampoon. There's a scene near the end of the film in which a miracle arguably occurs, when a flock of flamingos come to rest on the remnants of The Saint's dinner party, for example, and while there is mystery and awe in it, it's so utterly absurd that it takes the piss out of any kind of spirituality it might engender. It's pure style, much as everything else in Rome is pure style. The choice of the Ponte Sant'Angelo as a final image is telling. The bridge was built in honor of Hadrian, but remodeled by the Church as propaganda. Spirituality as style, in other words, which is so common to the Catholic Church that it hardly bears delving into further.

There are cinematic touchstones here, too. The obvious one is Fellini, of course, whose La Dolce Vita is the mold from which this film is struck. But La grande bellezza touches explicitly and obliquely on Visconti, Antonioni, Pasolini, and (as I've said) Argento as well. This is a movie drunk on the possibilities of movies, and damned if it doesn't transmit that buzz to the audience. For all it's backward gazing, this is a film that's forward-looking. In its form, with it's restlessly gliding, never-static camera, it's a kind of film that probably could not have been made in the era of celluloid. This is a showpiece for digital filmmaking, and even the most ardent celluloid die-hards should make a careful study, because this is the future. Like many another future, it's here much sooner than anyone expected.

Toni Servillo in The Great Beatuy

There's a kernel of humanity at the center of the film, though, and good thing, lest it spiral into technocratic razzle dazzle for its own sake. Toni Servillo provides most of that humanity as Jep. Jep knows the game, as demonstrated in his recitation of how to behave at a funeral. Funerals are performance in this film's world, after all. When the moment arrives, Jep's essential decency forces him off the script. This is a film filled with people clinging to the illusion of youth, but Jep is too smart for that. The cynical mocker and the chaser of "the great beauty" coexist in him and it's a tension that makes him more than just a mouthpiece for irony. This dichotomy continues unto the very end of the film, when, confronting his own lost youth, he calls it all a trick. An illusion. His face says otherwise, though.

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Howard Schumann said...

Excellent review, full of exceptional insight, worthy of inclusion in publications such as Senses of Cinema of Film Comment.

Perhaps you might consider posting it on Imdb (I posted mine this week).
Many might not be aware of your blog.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Howard. If I contribute to the weekly thread on Classics on Monday, I'll include a link. Thanks for the kind words.