La Grande Bellezza

When I came to Rome at the age of 26, I fell pretty swiftly.

I may not have been 26 when I first visited Rome, but I was just one month shy. I fell swiftly, too, though I was completely aware of it, unlike Jep Gambardelli, our protagonist in The Great Beauty.

Not every city, but a few special ones, are more like people than locales. They become full-fledged characters, rather than simple backdrops. New York is certainly one of those cities; Paris, I’d argue, another. Rome fits the bill, as well. Just pull a few Fellini films at random, and my point is made. 

The Great Beauty couldn’t take place anywhere other than Rome, and that’s the point. It’s a an harsh look at the empty lives of the modern, Roman bourgeoisie. After publishing what we are made to believe is work of genius in his early 20’s, Roman-transplant Jep proceeds to live for nothing other than pleasure and fame.

We meet Jep on his 65th birthday, as he begins to feel the emptiness of his pseudo-rockstar lifestyle. Hungover and exhausted from a truly Bacchanalian fete, he goes to bed well after the sun has risen and drifts into a dream world. What follows is a surreal sequence of memories and conversations cast to an operatic soundtrack. Characters speak, but we cannot hear them over the song, giving their interactions and movements an even greater element of theatrics and emptiness.

We then follow Jep as he goes through the motions of his day-to-day life. He feels old, and he has squandered time in exchange for popularity. The sudden death of his first love, Elisa, seems to stir in him a nostalgia for his sincerity and his willingness to make an effort — “The poet always stands naked before the world” — which has since been covered by witty quips and late-night parties.

It’s a subtle detail, but Jep’s character, who seems stunted by the love affair he had in his early 20s, retains his Neapolitan accent despite 40 years in Rome. Is it an old habit he can’t get rid of, like his inability to move on from Elisa? It seems like everything around Jep is in varying states of decay and instead of facing it head on, he decides to party all night, even at an absurd age. Until, of course, he doesn’t, choosing instead to document it in words.

The Great Beauty has been called “La Dolce Vita for the 21st century” — a pretty high bar to live up to. And it works. The cinematography is, in a word, breathless. The story line is a true to life series of events, not dissimilar to Marcello’s road to nowhere in La Dolce Vita. Jep, like many of us, is bored and tired of social airs, and yet he cannot seem to pull himself away from them. Only his one friend, Romano, is able to admit to himself that Rome doesn’t make him happy and, subsequently, take action to reclaim his own happiness.

Selfishly, I only wish we could see the young Jep. I want to see where he started, how he arrived at this cynicism. When did he stop being honest? When did he fall out of love with Elisa, with writing? Or were these desires overcome by his need for power, social mobility? In the past year, it feels like there’s been an increase in the number of exceptional films about middle aged crises, which makes me wonder what us young ones are working on. Will we have our own The Human Apparatus, the title of Jep’s great novel, or will we only begin at the end of the story?

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