Seen and Unseen

by Mary Joe Hughes

illustration by Nicoletta Gomboli

illustration by Nicoletta Gomboli

I. THE KING OF THE HIGH LIFE

“People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative.” This line from Céline’s 1932 novel Journey to the End of Night introduces The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. The film won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film of 2013 and opened here to widespread critical acclaim. And yet many thoughtful and well-educated acquaintances of mine either walked out or dismissed it almost with disgust.

I myself found it a film of unusual power, and was puzzled to discover that I was in something of a minority among people I respect, so I went back to see it again. And no, it doesn’t work well as drama. It flaunts the illusory quality of its surface story, as if to say that the actual focus of the film is merely a façade. Everything is “a fictitious narrative.” Real life is what isnot on the screen most of the time. The film simply defies assumptions of what cinema should be. This dizzying contrariness, along with the absence of a compelling plot, might explain the polarization in its reception, and it haunted me for weeks afterward. I wanted to understand how The Great Beauty could be so off-putting and so moving at the same time.

The film centers around Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a bon vivant moving among the pretentious excesses of wealthy Romans who carry the age-old tradition of Roman decadence and taste for spectacle into the Berlusconi era. Jep turns 65 as the film begins, informing us that he had come to Rome wanting to be “the king of the high life,” to have the power to make parties a failure. He’s also an occasional journalist writing stories about local events and (generally appalling) performance art, having abandoned fiction after one important success many years past. Mostly, however, he moves from one vacant party scene to another, while witnessing both the arresting beauty and the social vacuity of his surroundings. (At least the tourists appreciate Rome, he observes.)

The audience is forced to watch as he watches, and alongside the scenes of undeniable architectural and artistic splendor, what we mostly see is pretentious contemporary art, hyper-eroticism, and too many parties. Jep appears all-too-conditioned to these social surroundings, asking a neighbor where he gets his suits, coaching an aging stripper on how to dress and act at a funeral, sleeping with random women, and dancing into the night.

As viewers, we see (along with Jep) the self-absorption and preoccupation with show that have largely displaced the artistic treasures of the Roman past. These cultural remnants now stand as a reminder of what has been lost, overshadowed in the present by pure spectacle. In the first party scene, an actor tells his companion that he has played both a pope and a junkie, and they refer to a former TV showgirl who now does nothing since there are no good female roles. This dialogue is no accident. It highlights the indiscriminate nature of performance, while introducing the demeaning objectification (and sometimes self-objectification) of women in the film. Contrast the image of the showgirl to the modestly dressed nuns and yearningly beautiful depictions of Madonna and child, visions that unfold before us as we see Rome through Jep’s eyes. Though he is clearly sensitive to beauty as well as to cant, he continues to live a life that favors show over substance. It’s a hollow performance.

While he watches and wanders through Rome in the wee hours, we are subjected to one repetitive scene after another as we look through his eyes. Much of the drama unfolds within his character, though it is easy to miss given his persistent participation in “nothingness.” A few things happen, of course—including three deaths and the departure from Rome of an old friend—but there isn’t much of a storyline or dramatic climax. Adding to the potential ennui of the audience, the plot is loosely based on Fellini’s iconic La Dolce Vita, and can be dismissed as nothing more than a pastiche of old material.

In short, this is a film that doesn’t appear to offer what we look for in films: an original story, a plot with sustained and meaningful interactions or conflict among the characters. Instead it is a pageant of shallow behavior and apparently disconnected scenes, though some of them are undeniably gorgeous to see. Reasons for distaste seem obvious.

II. WHAT’S UNDERNEATH

But there is another The Great Beauty going on at the same time, hinted at by literary devices, as well as by art and music. Literary elements can certainly be found in many films, but in The Great Beauty these elements, not the action, play a greater than usual role in conveying meaning. And much of this underground meaning plays out beneath and even contrary to the visual surface, as if parts of that surface were a mask or an illusion. We understand Jep’s invisible interior life not through action, but through language that relies to an unusual degree on irony, nuance, and de-contextualization.

The Great Beauty suggests that much of life is potentially illusory; accordingly, much of the surface of the film is a kind of dream. It is as if the film has an unconscious that is in conflict with its own conscious life, and we the audience must listen carefully to the patient to catch the real meaning.

But before examining this subterranean layer, it is worth establishing what is clear on the surface. This is a film about death. Jep’s 65th birthday signals his own approaching mortality, underscored by the three deaths that punctuate the drama. First, he learns of the passing of the woman he loved as a very young man. This sad discovery is followed by the suicide of the son of one of Jep’s friends, and then the death—presumably from drugs—of the daughter of another. “Everything is dying, people younger than me. I am not cut out for this city,” he observes.

These tragic events lead Jep to consider life’s meaning beneath the surface. Of particular significance is an art installation Jep encounters soon after his birthday—an enormous series of photographs of the artist taken every day of his life, first by his father and then by himself. At first it might be easy to mistake this exhibit for another example of the kind of self-promotion that is rife in Jep’s social set, like the woman who posts nude pictures of herself on Facebook. But this contemplation of life’s passage—mortality acknowledged and raised into art—has a very different effect. Upon seeing it, Jep is deeply moved. The soundtrack underscores such moments of recognition with contemporary musical works of unusual spiritual power. These musical cues in the film are normally, though not exclusively, associated with the artistic treasures of the Roman past—that is, with moments of great beauty.

Faced with this awareness of time’s arrow, Jep thinks his life is “nothing.” He has missed out on the love of his life and failed to live up to his promise as a writer. He all but embodies what has happened to Rome. But though he feels an emptiness, it does not seem to affect his behavior. This is what distinguishes The Great Beauty. We have to look beneath the surface action, following irony or nonverbal clues, in order to grasp Jep’s inner struggle. Even when the cluesare verbal, they point to what is not there in the actual life portrayed on the screen.

Real life, then—Jep’s life on the surface—is merely a façade, and he knows it.

III. ROOTS

What, then, really matters in life?

What matters, according to Jep, is not the “chitter chatter” that has taken over the lives of so many of his acquaintances. Family, he tells a young woman, is “a beautiful thing”—yet there is hardly a trace of family in the film. Instead we see an array of single people and failed marriages. Family is noteworthy for itsabsence.

The lovelessness and aimless coupling that we encounter on the screen signify, among other things, the death of the future, a death symbolized in the film by the younger generation. What matters is what is absent from the future, what isnot there in the life Jep is leading among the socialites of Rome. The future has been lost, cut loose from the past. This, according to an interview with Servillo, is the difference between the films of Fellini and The Great Beauty. In Fellini’s work you could still see a future. The later film represents a different period in Italy.

In fact, the three foci of Italian life—family, church, and community—are all mostly absent from the segment of Roman society we observe in The Great Beauty. “Roots are important,” says that saintly nun at the end. She may be talking about food, but we hear her talking about human connections. In this film, roots have all but vanished. This is surely the reason Jep’s old friend leaves Rome for his hometown. Rome is for the unmoored. What keeps Jep somewhat grounded is the semblance of family he enjoys over bowls of soup with his editor, or joking in the kitchen with his housekeeper. These homey scenes with unglamorous women are offered in contrast to the female members of the beau monde with whom he sleeps and parties. “Roots” are what is mostly not there in the Rome of Jep’s party-going crowd: a loving community, true friends, fellow feeling.

At another point the slippery nature of language again suggests the subterranean layer of the film that is not there on the surface. The same aged nun (La Santa) comments that “you can’t write about poverty; you have to live it.” A cardinal overhears her and looks chagrined, as he revels in high society decked in crimson while pontificating about the pleasures of food. He’s a heavy-handed symbol of hollowness within the church.

But the nun’s comment holds a different meaning for Jep. She had admired his novel, and asks him why he had never written another. He explains that he had been looking for “great beauty” but had never found it. Hearing her say that one cannot write about something without living it surely suggests to Jep that he cannot maintain his stance as a casual observer of social vacuity if he wants to write something of substance, something of “great beauty.”

IV. GOING NOWHERE

It is not by accident that Flaubert’s desire to write a book about nothing comes up more than once. Jep knows that he has preoccupied himself mostly with nothing, and his (later) writing reflects his life.

But when he encounters a rare loving couple, a man and woman who choose to stay home together in the evening and do “nothing,” he exclaims how beautiful they are. Unlike this couple, most people in contemporary Rome have traded substance for emptiness. At the last party we witness, everybody is conga dancing. “Our trains are going nowhere,” Jep says, meaning more than the dance. The visual dimension of the film still portrays him as a man-about-town (albeit a melancholy one), but his responses to genuine beauty and the film’s ironic use of language convey what is not there in the apparent plot and action. The life Jep has been living, the life of much of the drama, is an illusion covering up nothing.

There is show and there is beauty, and he has led a showy life.

V. THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS ENDS

It is true, however, that show sometimes leads to beauty. Think of the Roman colosseum, once the scene of brutal spectacle and now a starkly beautiful ruin that the film (unrealistically) situates across from Jep’s apartment. Sorrentino explores the show/beauty distinction without invariably associating ‘show’ with the present or ‘beauty’ with the past, as if to say that these two levels have been in conflict since ancient Roman times.

This thought prepares us for the lines from Céline that begin the movie:

Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative. Littré says so, and he’s never wrong. And besides, in the first place, anyone can do as much. You just have to close your eyes. It’s on the other side of life.

This passage suggests that our journey from life to death is a kind of fiction, as is everything in the material world. It’s a false surface. Yet there is something fundamental on the other side of this deceptive screen.

We could argue that The Great Beauty is a failure because it lacks conventional drama and conflict, and because it elicits and illustrates ennui. We could even argue that it is a failure since its deeper meaning is too reliant on complex quotations at the film’s beginning and end, over which it is impossible to linger as one might with literature. But how else could Sorrentino convey two visual layers at once—the one hollow and the other full of elevated feeling—except through cinema? How else to simultaneously present the great beauty of Rome and its marginalization, except through cinema, a visual medium immeasurably enhanced in this film by the ethereal music of such composers as David Lang (I Lie), Vladimir Martynov (The Beatitudes), John Tavener (The Lamb), Arvo Pärt (My Heart’s in the Highlands), Henryk Górecki, (Symphony No.3: III Lento [Cantabile semplice]) and Zbigniew Preisner, (Dies Irae)? These transcendent works are critical to what great beauty signifies here: the sensory presence of genuine feeling.

It is a complex assignment to transmit two layers of life at once: a present-day focus on cheap sensuality and spectacle, while at the same time real beauty stares blind contemporary Romans in the face. And how else to make the philosophical case that most of the apparent action of the film is an illusion, except through nuanced language? What seems like life is actually “nothing,” while what is neglected or ignored is where all substance lies. The inner life of a perceptive character is more often the preserve of literature, but here we access it through Servillo’s expressive face as well as through artistic and literary clues.

Sorrentino has stretched the resources of cinema in order to present the dualism inherent in a writer’s sensibility, caught between observer and observed. Perhaps this is also the sensibility of Sorrentino, whose visual medium does not prevent him from ruminating on forms of beauty, for which—like roots—there can be no clear sensory evidence. The Great Beauty meditates broadly on what truly matters in the fleeting course of human life, while making a tragic case for the demise of Roman—if not Western—civilization. This is an achievement more than justifying the ennui and seeming aimlessness on the screen. While the message is immeasurably sad, it is some consolation that, by the end of the film, Jep is willing to try serious fiction again, and much greater consolation that we have been able to see and hear such beauty—still alive among the tourists, in the works of contemporary composers, and in this film.


Mary Joe Hughes is a Retired Adjunct Professor of the Humanities at Boston College. In 2013 she published The Move Beyond Form: Creative Undoing in Literature and the Arts since 1960 (Palgrave Macmillan).The Move Beyond Form combines her interests in literature, film, and the visual arts with aesthetic philosophy.