life eternal beauty
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
“What Rome is, when it comes to the fine arts, you can see, and understand, but you cannot explain” the Portuguese painter and writer Cyrillo Volkmar Machado would write in his autobiography, published – ironically – the year of his death, in 1823.* One could say the same about Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, the sublimely baroque La Grande Bellezza. You see Rome, and perhaps understand it, but you can definitely not explain it. The director somehow distills its elusive essence on the screen, and although his frames are exquisitely, meticulously constructed, this essence extends beyond the picture-perfect scenery at display, and beyond the freak show that crowds its streets and nightlife. Many reviewers have noted Sorrentino’s indebtedness to Fellini’s cinematic universe, and the director certainly wears his influences as a badge of honor.
But despite being a love letter to the city, much like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was to the fictional Paris of the 20s (Sorrentino’s Rome is no less fictional for referring to the present), this is not a movie about the city itself. It is a movie about the passage of time, inexorable to young and old alike, about death and loss, and about the beauty that transcends it all. It is also about the things that make people get out of bed every morning, although death might decide to visit them that same afternoon, as a character who commits suicide later in the film gloomily observes.
Toni Servillo’s Jep Gambardella, an aging writer who hasn’t written a new book in decades, lives his life in hedonistic abandon between extravagant high-society parties that verge on orgies, meaningless sex flings and increasingly bizarre, surrealistic encounters. Eternally beholden to the beauty of his first love, the announcement of her death – and the vain attempt to recapture some of his old feelings for her – triggers a series of events and reactions that lead him to face his life, loneliness, and himself. That the film manages to raise Jep’s existential drama to an almost universal experience is almost entirely due to Servillo’s vulnerable, deeply melancholic, masterfully elegant performance. Considering that Sorrentino chooses a very specific social class to situate his character in, the fact that class is the least relevant element of this film is truly extraordinary.
There are a great number of scenes that speak to these primal fears, longings and hopes: when Jep visits the open air exhibition of a man who took pictures of himself every single day of his life turning it into an inadvertently moving document about the passage of time; when he shares soup with an old friend who affectionately calls him Jeppino, a childhood nickname; the funeral scene where he unexpectedly breaks down in tears while lifting the coffin of the disturbed young man he had never paid any attention to; the scene where he interrupts the vanishing trick of the giraffe, and with an air of pained desperation asks the magician to perform the trick on him; or the scene where he crosses the room where the principesse, ossified creatures that resemble the statues in their own collection, continue playing cards, unperturbed.
Strangely, it was at this particular scene (as well as the one where princess Colonna visits the empty berth of a long lost child) that the weight the character carries around with him manifested itself most dramatically. Rome has survived 2000 years. It will survive 2000 more (they don’t call it eternal city for nothing). In the grand scheme of things, the people that populate it must be insignificant. Jep is at the same time lucky for his privileged view of the Collosseum, and a prisoner to it. And yet, its gardens are luscious, its palaces magnificent, and beauty is everywhere. When Jep is dancing in the garden with another friend, with whom they previously had a fall out, he asks her if they had already slept together: when she replies in the negative, he sighs gently, genuinely happy that the future still holds the possibility of surprises, and his soft tone is candid and tender.
In the end, Jep revisits the lighthouse that marked his youth and the movie comes to a close as he muses: “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“. But this is not a trick. It is a miracle.
* Cyrillo Volkmar Machado, Colecção de memorias relativas ás vidas dos pintores, e escultores, architetos, e gravadores portuguezes, e dos estrangeiros que estiverão em Portugal, Lisbon 1823.