“Sumptuously sensual, crammed with gusto, vitality, spectacle, and invention, The Great Beauty (2013) is also a cautionary tale about the heedless pursuit of pleasure. Director Paolo Sorrentino pulls out all the stops visually, layering one stunning, eye-opening image onto another. But for all this, the film is also, paradoxically, austere and rigorous.” ~Phillip Lopate, Columbia University
Here is Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, the writer who is at the center of the film. He narrates bits of his life, his surroundings, the details of Rome and its privileged crowd’s existence, beginning with his sixty-fifth birthday celebration.
But scenes change quickly from one to another, much as the mood of the film swings from somber to exuberant. Unexpectedly, we are thrust into an outdoor theater where a naked woman runs full force into a brick wall which makes the audience gasp; but, not turn away. This, for them, is entertainment.
As Jeb contemplates his life he is less likely to be moved sexually as he is in his search for answers. Why did Elisa leave him in 1970? He never finds out, any more than he finds an answer to spiritual questions from a cardinal who leaves Jeb standing there while he goes off hunting for skunk.
Although the film had many strange scenes, such as this child creating a work of art before a crowd of spectators, while crying because she is forced to do so, it was at the same time compelling. The shots of Rome were spectacular, the depiction of the people remarkable in the way that their very existence was so frivolous. From Botox parties, to all night drinking…
to a conga line which never ends, I was struck as I always am by the ridiculousness of the masses.
My favorite scenes, my favorite lines, came from the character Sister Maria. A representation of Sister Theresa, at 104 years of age, she is asked why she won’t let them interview her in a book.
“I took a vow of poverty. And you don’t talk about poverty. You live it,” she says very quietly through broken and greying teeth.
And later, when Jeb is standing on a balcony watching migrating flamingos who are resting there, she turns to ask him, “Do you know why I only eat roots?”
“No,” he replies.
“Because roots are important.”