Final Rating: 8/10
Please note that this article breaks down the film heavily and as such there are plenty of spoilers, that said if you have not seen it yet, do so right away!
Films are made for a variety of reasons, to entertain us, to teach us new things, to make us question what we already know. Watching “The Great Beauty” made me question a lot of things about film as a medium. I don’t know if there has ever been a film more confused over its message. Is it the most passionate love letter to a city ever made? Or is a vitriolic attack against the bourgeoisie class that criticizes wealth and materialism? Frankly it is both at the same time.
The first half of the film is about Jep Gambardella and his life after his 65th birthday. All his life he wanted to be the life of the party. His career was as a writer, but his work was to know everyone, or have everyone idolize him more specifically. It is inferred that the one and only book that Jep wrote, The Human Apparatus, was inspired by the one woman he truly loved which was written when he was a young man. Since they broke up, nothing was worth writing about in depth anymore. Jep is now confined to being a journalist, a good one, but a job he was not destined for. Most of the people Jep encounters view him as a genius, but some think that him and his work are equally overrated. There isn’t much of a consistent plot but more revealing layers of Jep as he runs into people from his past. These interactions cause him to meditate on life.
The film is one of the most gorgeously shot movies I have ever seen. Every building, tree and person looks like they belong in a fairy tale. The first half of the movie is filmed very oddly. There are multiple fast movie tracking shots, with a hyperactive kinetic feel. It feels like a heist film, with smooth dollying takes, wheeling quickly up to slow moving people. It feels like how, as people, we rush through life, uninterested and feeling ambivalent towards everyday beauty. As the film moves on and Jep starts to feel that his life has been spent in the pursuit of nothingness, the camera slows down and allows for more intimate shots. Close ups become more common and Jep shows more emotion. Rarely does a film make its technics so on display for the purpose of character development.
Jep waxes poetic on how the only good people in Rome are the tourists, and that no one contributes anything of value, himself and friends included. People are trashy, and over indulge themselves. They lie and hurt and there is nothing redeemable about them, especially Romans. Apparently real Italians come from other parts of the country. “The Great Beauty” gets this theme from some of the films of Federico Fellini like those explored in “Roma” and “8 ½”. It is certainly very ironic that Jep will disown the city that he claims made him too lazy to write, than show him getting out of his bed and walking onto his patio of his penthouse, where the Coliseum is literally across the street from where he lives. The opulence would be sickening if it didn’t make you want to jump out of your seat and catch the next flight to Italy. Every church and museum looks like it should be put on a pedestal and praised. How can someone have such anger towards such beauty?
The characters that fill the film fall into two different categories, those who claim to have something to say and say it often, and those who are misunderstood, belittled or ignored who have truth inside them. Stefania, a female writer at one of Jep’s many parties tries to take him down a peg or five by claiming his only book was garbage and a waste of people’s time. While she may not be perfect herself, her eleven books and having a family (something Jep does not have) contributes more to society than he could ever dream of. Jep’s friends try to stand up for him, but lack the ability to truly dissuade her. Jep just laughs in her face claiming she is a liar and has done nothing of note on her own. She goads him on and you learn just how connected to the city Jep is. He carefully dismantles her entire career and life in a few short sentences claiming her book about a political party was possible because she was having an affair with the leader, her other books were only published by a company that is funded by the same party. Her supposedly greatest accomplishment of being a mother is a lie since she has more housekeepers than any normal person should have and goes out to clubs every night (including Monday’s) and leaves her children with her army of servants. At first you worry Jep has gone to far spitting out his venom, but anyone who has something they should be proud of needs not to brag about it in the first place. Recognition comes from the heart for doing the right thing without being told, not praise from others.
There is a Cardinal who seems to be next in line to be Pope but he is unable to answer spiritual questions from Jep and is only able to talk about his cooking abilities. This man may be the biggest fool in the film. Others Jep encounters include an old friend who manages a strip club where his daughter is one of the dancers. He tries to convince Jep to find her a husband to settle her down as she makes a lot of money but never has any due to her spending habits. Romano is an old friend of Jep who is struggling to find his own voice is trying to woe a woman who clearly is using him for reasons unknown. Romano has no money, and is at least thirty years older than her. What could she possible use him for? When Romano finally puts on a play with the assistance of Jep she is on her phone the whole time and when the lights go up, she walks out without clapping. Yet the character known as Lifeless Girl on a whim decides that she wants to be a writer or a director because she no longer finds acting interesting, even if Romano is offering her a lead role.
Those that say little or don’t put their opinions on the line have the most truth in them. When Jep meets Ramona, the almost fifty-year-old stripper, she thinks him to be nothing but another dirty old man. He only talks to her as a favor to his old friend (her father). Yet they are somehow kindred spirits, he is a social butterfly and she is a social pariah. He tries to get her to act like a socialite, explaining that at funerals you should whisper poetry to the consoling family in front of everyone and look contemplative in a corner so people will think you are deep. Most importantly do not cry, as it is something only families of the deceased should do and makes you look weak. When they go to a funeral together he follows everything to a T, but when he lifts the casket as a pallbearer, he has a devastating breakdown. He tries to speak opinion as fact and reduces himself down as a phony too.
Romano is Jep’s loser friend, in the sense he is a tag along and is often seen as Jep’s puppy. Romano constantly encourages Jep to write another book as his only one brought so much beauty to his life. When Romano’s play is a success and the Lifeless Girl walks out on him, he realizes he needs to have his own life free of everyone, including Jep. He finds Jep and wishes only him goodbye before disappearing to the other side of the country. He found his redemption when realizing he doesn’t need other people as crutches. There are several other examples like a silent poet who only listens so he can write objectively, or the widow of Jep’s childhood love would rather have a quiet dinner with his new girlfriend instead of going to parties. Peace, solitude and confidence are what the soul needs to be truly alive.
Everyone always asks Jep why he never wrote again and his excuse again and again is that Flaubert tried to write a book about nothing and failed, so how can an amateur in his own opinion write anything else. When a nun who has given up all her worldly possessions to live a life of poverty and has dedicated her life to help others, like Mother Theresa, asks Jep, he finally tells the truth. Jep only wants to write about the great beauty in life but hasn’t been able to do it. There are two ways to approach this, as he can never fully appreciate or understand what a great beauty in life is, or maybe since he will never experience it why bother trying to write at all. The other way to look at it is he is so cynical he cannot see the great beauty around him. Rome, his friends, and his life are a great beauty worth writing about but if you are constantly putting it down how could someone reconcile with that? Perhaps the answer is both, he hasn’t experienced a great beauty but even if he did he is far too cynical to share it with anyone.
There are far more themes to explore in “The Great Beauty” like the idea of the protagonist wanting to only hang out with a stripper over a cardinal, a parable like that of Jesus preferring to hang out with prostitutes and debt collectors over clergy men. Religion, just like it is in Italy is a major theme in the film. Redemption is something Jep craves as he has lived a wasted life. Everyone always wants some kind of redemption anyways; it is only human nature to want forgiveness.