La Grande Bellezza "The Great Beauty" (film)

La Grande Bellezza "The Great Beauty" (Directed by Paolo Sorrentino)/2013

The Great Beauty is a lush, sensual, dream-like wondering through modern-day Rome.  In it we witness the juxtaposition and the hidden layers behind modern life seen through the eyes of a successful theatre critic named Jep.  Jep has set out to achieve what he wanted in his career: ultimate fame.  Jep has spent many decades pursuing pleasure and establishing himself to be THE party of Rome.  Upon his 60th birthday Jep decides that he will not do anything that he does not want to do anymore.  However he begins to question the worthiness in pursuing pleasure and beauty, and its perceived lack of spirituality.

Feeling reflective, Jep seeks out old friends and acquaintances.  People from the past before he rose to fame, people who are perhaps more “real”.  At the same time he sees his friends, whom he partied with for decades leave Rome in disappointment, not finding anything true to their existence and feeling they had floated through the years amongst the relentless current of hedomism.

Despite the famous, the powerful and the beautiful people Jep meets, Jep’s favourite people are his dwarf editor, his South American house maid and a high-class stripper.  The film follows a week of Jep's life: his work, parties and relationships and exposes his realisation of the hypocrisy in modern art and culture.  He interviews an avant-garde theatre actor that gives an ultimate performance depicting “pain”.  She babbles words of wisdom but turns out to be simply a fame seeking charlatan.  He spends the night with a beautiful and intelligent woman, who spends her spare hours taking selfies and wants him to acknowledge that she is beautiful in her desperate self-inadequacy.  He seeks spiritual advice from the archbishop who cannot offer anything except recipes of rustic cuisine. 

Behind the scenes we also see: poverty stricken aristocrats, no longer relevant with their status lost, earning money by making social appearances, the actress with an irrational temper of an artist but lacking self-confidence or direction, and a bourgeoisie house wife romanticising and promoting socialist values without self-reflection.

Jep is a hedonist but makes no pretence to be otherwise. The Great Beauty pokes fun at the materialistic, narcissistic, and superficially intellectual culture of the elites.  While the film is set in Rome, the message of the film is applicable to any other place in the modern world.  On the other hand, the film does not fully condemn the life of a Roman elite as wasted, as Jep actually enjoys his wealth and fame.  He enjoys interesting and beautiful people he meets, a few friends he has and the aesthetic and physical pleasure that it can provide.  Jep however is an exception, as others experience the dilemma of having enjoyed their life in Rome yet feeling that it has been that of frivolous pleasures and feeling empty in search of something more "real".  Perhaps this search for realism amongst the chaos of modernity may be hedonism itself as people find comfort and pleasure in something real and raw rather than illusory.  Looking at the ancient architecture that dominates the landscape of Rome in the background, one is reminded of the many generations of Romans that embraced hedonism which also failed to fill the void of longing.

The film is reminiscent of Fellini’s 8 ½ (which is also reviewed on this blog).  However I would propose that 8 ½ was an immersion into the mind of a hedonist where The Great Beauty is a narrative of cultural absurdities portrayed through a hedonist and the beauty within them.  Both films play on society’s desire for beauty and pleasure and let us vicariously live through that in the films.  They are exquisite to watch.  However in the end, 8 ½ takes a determinative approach where the protagonist realises frivolities in his existence and comes to regret and repent.  By contrast The Greaty Beauty is more post-modernist in that it portrays good and bad in all the inconsistencies that lie in modern existence.  What is The Great Beauty? The film’s message appears to be: life and all that is within.

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