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The NotMaybe-So-Great ‘Beauty’

I watched an Italian film last night, The Great Beauty, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2014. That’s two and a half hours I’ll never get back.

The trailer was beautiful, and the theme of the film drew me in. It’s the story of Jep Gambardella, a 65-year-old Roman socialite who wrote a bestselling novel in his youth, and has been living off that reputation (and his royalties) ever since. He has been something of a playboy, going to every party, and throwing some pretty great ones himself. He has never written anything else. He surrounds himself with Beautiful People who are as empty as he is. Jep is deeply cynical, but wry about it all, and slinks around town with a bemused, devil-may-care look on his face.

The film’s images are extremely beautiful, but its characters are repulsive. I think that’s the point. The Great Beauty, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is obviously an homage to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but it’s a sequel, of sorts. In the Fellini film, the protagonist loses himself in the empty frenzy of the Roman high life. In The Great Beauty, the protagonist is much like you would imagine the Fellini antihero to be in the final chapter of his life, having wasted it having fun with rich and socially prominent friends. The film sets you up to experience it as Jep’s pilgrimage towards redemption, towards finding himself again.

The Great Beauty is a fairly scathing satire of the vanities characterizing elites in Berlusconi’s Italy. The art is wholly decadent and exploitive. People live by their image — a neat hat tip the role of image and spectacle in the Fellini film, which stars Marcello Mastroianni as a journalist, and which coined the term “paparazzo” to describe a celebrity photographer. Most everyone is expensively maintained, in terms of their aesthetic presentation, but they all look like dead souls … because they are.

Sincerity is impossible. Jep tells an aging stripper how to perform at a funeral for the sake of feigning sincerity, then displays it for her masterfully. Everybody loses themselves in self-indulgence. Jep stays above the fray by practicing a wry form of cynicism that tears down everyone’s pretensions, including his own. There’s a painful scene in which he filets an old friend, a writer and communist (in Italy, they have rich commies) who insists that she, unlike the rest of their circle, is committed to causes greater than her own pleasure. Jep calmly describes how her life — her career, her marriage, her motherhood — is a fraud, and shows how the only thing she is sincere about is believing her own self-created image. It’s a brutal moment, but Jep is telling the truth. But he tells the truth not out of love, but out of a peculiarly genial kind of spite. He’s saying, gently but venomously, “Come off it, dear, you are no better than the rest of us. You’re a mess too, just like we are.”

It is better to know the truth than to believe a lie, but Jep is not trying to disillusion her for the sake of leading her to something higher and better. He doesn’t believe there is anything higher or better, only staying busy and entertained until death.

You might be thinking: this sounds exactly like the kind of movie Rod would find interesting. What’s the problem? The problem is that there is no real redemption for Jep. The film’s final sequence — I’m going to try to discuss this without spoilers — involves Jep’s encounter with a revered but ancient Catholic nun who is a Mother Teresa figure. They call her “the Saint,” and you’re prepared to think of her as just one more huckster. Indeed, the cardinal who pays her homage, a prelate who is said to be in line for the papacy, is revealed to be a shallow Epicurean who is not interested in spirituality at all, only in performing the role of cardinal. But the Saint is the real deal. What’s interesting about this character is that she too comes packaged as spectacle, but as the film goes on, you see that she is personally detached from it (she’s 104 years old). She is as ugly and still as those around her are beautiful and frenzied. But you can see that the Saint has inner beauty, and substance.

She was a fan of Jep’s only novel when it came out, and asks him why he hasn’t written another one. The Saint tells him to dig beneath the surface of life and to return to his roots. This, the viewer surmises, is to be Jep’s salvation as a writer.

But in the final moments of the film, we see the Saint doing an ascetic labor that is extremely hard on her body, but that she performs in private (nobody sees her), for the eyes of God alone. It is an act of suffering and humility — it brings her joy we can see. Jep, by contrast, is on a yacht, and remembers a moment of transcendence he had by the seashore as a young man, when the woman who was his true love showed him her breasts. The lesson here for us is that Jep needs to learn to see the world, especially Rome, with the eyes of innocence again. In fact, this scene gives moral dimension to a throwaway comment Jep made early in the film; he said that the tourists are the best people in Rome. Before, it sounds like a wisecrack, but by the end, we understand that what makes them good in his eyes is that they can see the Eternal City with innocent eyes. In other words, they see the Great Beauty around them, while the decadent Romans, like Jep, take it all for granted, and throw away their heritage of artistic greatness.

In writing all this, the movie sounds a lot better in the recollection than it was in the experience. Why is that? I think it’s because the redemption it offers Jep is not redemption at all, at least not as I see it. It is an aesthetic redemption, not a moral or spiritual one. It amounts to learning how to see what’s really there, which is great, but is only really a shift in perspective leading nowhere. Jep says at the end that he is not interested in the afterlife, and that meaning in the mortal life consists in savoring those flashes of beauty disclosed to one with eyes to see. Again, this is probably the only redemption available to committed aesthetes, but it is so insufficient that it made me really angry that I had given over two hours to a film whose damned protagonist finds his way out of his own dark wood by learning to separate art from spectacle. The art — by which I mean not only visual art, but architecture, and moments of aesthetic sublimity, of which The Great Beauty offers many (this is a visually sumptuous film) — the art is an end in itself, not a sign pointing to a transcendent realm. There is no such realm, according to this film; the best we can do is to admire what is passing through our fingers.

I don’t see redemption of any kind in that, and certainly nothing to raise the dead. Jep will still go to all the same parties, and live as he has always lived. Now, though, he will be more thoughtful about it. This is redemption? He is still caught in the prison of his own ego — something the Saint has escaped through her faith, and through her ascetic way of life. Jep is far too committed to la dolce vita to follow her example in any way. The problem with him — the problem with them all — is pride.

If you have seen the film, or read anything about it, perhaps you can tell me if I’m misreading it. I credit the filmmaker for diagnosing the malaise of contemporary life among a certain sort of cultural elite. Truth-telling matters. But the answer he offers strikes me as radically insufficient, and indeed a more sophisticated form of the very decadence the film documents and decries. Maybe it’s all the director and his cultural class believe is possible. I ended the movie thinking, “Is that all there is?”

UPDATE: It’s like Jep finds salvation not by leaving the dark wood, but by finding a new appreciation for its durability and its shadows.

UPDATE.2: I just drove back from a Chesterton conference (more on which later), and am about to head over to vespers, but before I do, I want to say something. On the long drive back, all I could think about was The Great Beauty, and its ending. It is true, as a reader of this blog points out, that my deep frustration with the film was the sense I had that the aesthetic “salvation” Jep had was, in the eyes of the filmmaker, sufficient. No, I am certainly not looking for a religious conversion in a film like this, but it seemed to me that Jep’s change was purely aesthetic — and that is radically insufficient.

But reading comments here, and thinking more about the film, it strikes me as possible that the filmmaker was saying that if Jep is to find some sort of redemption, it must first begin with his learning to see with the eyes of innocence. We all have to start somewhere; it could be that Sorrentino, the director, is saying that Jep is beginning the long climb back out of the pit by beginning to regard the world around him with a wonder that he had long since abandoned. In the opening sequence, a Japanese tourist is so overwhelmed by the beauty of Rome that he faints. The closing sequence has Jep committing himself to trying to see that beauty. That’s a start.

Thinking further about the film, it’s hard to believe that Sorrentino would have created the character of the Saint, and shown her act of private asceticism, if he had intended for Jep’s final statement on the matter to be the end of things. I noticed in the scene in which we first see the Saint that she is sitting on a kind of throne, with representatives of all the religions in the world coming to pay respect to her. Her feet dangle; they can’t touch the ground. She is like a child.

And she sees the world with the innocence of a child. This, of course, is what Christ said we must do if we are to be saved. The Saint is very, very old, but her eyes are capable of seeing wonder. The last image we have of her is of a face beholding joy — a kind of joy that Jep simply cannot perceive … yet. I was thinking this afternoon of Dante’s journey through the afterlife as a progressive one, one in which he learns to see again, and in seeing clearly, the light floods in and illuminates his soul, helping him to see even more clearly. Perhaps that is what is going to happen with Jep. I think that is plausible.

It bothered me that he had his epiphany in the film by recalling a woman he loved revealing her breasts to him in the moonlight. No, I’m not taking a puritanical point of view, but rather objecting to the pure sensuality of that moment. Then again, perhaps this is precisely analogous to Beatrice’s chastising of Dante when they meet in the summit of Mount Purgatory — that is, her telling him that he left the straight path when he mistook her for a goddess. That is, when he lost her (as Jep lost his first love), he mistook her beauty and the sensual attraction he felt for her as the ultimate truth, instead of seeing her as an icon of Truth, however imperfect. So Jep gave himself over to a life of sensual pleasure, thinking that was what life was really all about.

Maybe. What do you think?

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38 Comments (Open | Close)

38 Comments To "The NotMaybe-So-Great ‘Beauty’"

#1 Comment By J_A On March 7, 2015 @ 6:05 am

@ David J. White

What about you? Do you need a redeemer? And aRe you scared that there is nothing that is going to redeem you from anything?

#2 Comment By dominic1955 On March 7, 2015 @ 11:16 am

Rod,

“In writing all this, the movie sounds a lot better in the recollection than it was in the experience. Why is that? I think it’s because the redemption it offers Jep is not redemption at all, at least not as I see it. It is an aesthetic redemption, not a moral or spiritual one.”

That sounds rather flabby, prepackaged American of you. Do all movies have to have a happy ending?

Aren’t there many people who never come to a “moral or spiritual” redemption or better salvation, who might be at a certain superficial peace with themselves and are thus lost?

It is frighteningly easy to “find” yourself is shallow, nonsensical ways. To lull yourself to a certain self satisfied slumber and yet have missed the boat completely. I would guess that most folks stroll to hell, whistling all the way. If that isn’t a moral story, I don’t know what is.

[NFR: You misunderstand. It’s not that I wanted a “happy” ending. Last week I watched this year’s Best Foreign Film winner, “Ida,” and thought it fantastic. It does not have a “happy” ending, but it has an ending pregnant with meaning. I don’t think “The Great Beauty” presents Jep as lost, but rather as someone who found himself after being lost. The final scenes show that he had a revelation of carnal beauty early in his life, and his “salvation” is to return to that in a more serious, sincere way. I think that is better than what he had, but it is still damnation. The film *felt* terrible to me at the end, because we had walked through Hell with Jep only to arrive at Heck, which he declared to be Heaven. I think that the director, Paolo Sorrentino, believes in Jep’s redemption. I could be wrong. — RD]

#3 Comment By Everhopeful On March 7, 2015 @ 11:47 am

The Great Beauty is one of my favorite movies of all time, yet I agree with much of your assessment (not the waste of 2.5 hours, though, certainly). The movie is such an aesthetic experience (the surreal images, the choice of music), that I didn’t ask for anything more. It’s a pity that the “great beauty” doesn’t ascend to True Beauty, but it’s still a remarkable piece of art.

The most horrifying scene in my opinion was the little girl forced to paint at the party. It was brutal to watch.

#4 Comment By dominic1955 On March 7, 2015 @ 11:57 am

OK, you didn’t want a happy ending but why do you think the character needs to have found proper salvation? Not everyone gets that so it still sounds like a good moral story/cautionary tale. Many of us find “heaven”, a heaven that is only a mirage. The scary thing is that lots of people seem to enjoy drinking sand. That maybe isn’t what the director was going for, but its real.

#5 Comment By J_A On March 7, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

In the immortal words of J.R.R. Tolkien, not all those who wonder are lost.

I understand that you have a worldview, and mind you, by your description I would also find this Jep chap awfully shallow and not worth a second look. But it does bug me that you tend to see people in terms of salvation, redemption and what not, and that the path to redemption and a good life goes very much through religion (and particularly your religion) and that those who do not agree with you are fools, or blind, or immoral, or just evil.

Without trying to defend this Jap fellow, my life is not empty, I do not yearn, I am not afraid, I don’t crave for meaning, and I don’t believe in your God.

I wake up, I work, I read, I exercise (more than most, less than I should) I look at sunsets, smell flowers, enjoy good food, good friends, call my mum most every day, and I’m not particularly concerned that when I die there will be nothing to mark that I was briefly in the third rock from the sun.

I don’t need to add anything to my world, I particularly don’t need the same God that is so important in your life.

I yet, I don’t murder puppies, I don’t rape nuns, I don’t poison wells, I don’t drink till I pass out. Surprisingly I give to charity, I recycle, I support my community and I hold the elevator doors for older people.

I don’t need redemption. I am not damaged, and certainly I am not damned

#6 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On March 7, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

This sounds like the sort of film my wife will try to force me to watch on movie night, while not understanding my complaints that it doesn’t come close to a Gamera film, let alone a master piece like Godzilla.

#7 Comment By Noah172 On March 7, 2015 @ 12:49 pm

Rod,

You didn’t hate this movie, certainly not in the way Roger Ebert famously “hated, hated, hated” Rob Reiner’s North. Look, what did you write, 1000, 2000 words, expounding on its characters, plot, deeper meaning (or lack thereof)? The film was thought-provoking to you — far more so, I would think, than many another film you found more satisfying. It clearly moved you, not in the way we normally use the word “moving,” but moved you are nonetheless.

#8 Comment By Michael Guarino On March 7, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

It sounds like the ending is supposed to give an example of how the vanity rationalizes itself. No substantial change is necessary because vanity simply redefines goodness or elevates meager bits of transcendence to suit its needs. The Saint would serve as a juxtaposition in this case, to highlight the falsehood of Jep’s “redemption”.

I have not seen the movie, so I could be wrong. But if that is a valid reading, I see no way in which it is not an artistically serious point.

But for what it’s worth, this is what makes Italy great:

in Italy, they have rich commies.

#9 Comment By JonF On March 7, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

I haven’t seen the ,movie so I have no idea how well it carries this off, but there’s a reason why words for “know” and “see” are often cognate (e.g., “Vision” and “Wisdom”). To gain real knowledge you actually do have to be open to seeing the world as it is and not under the pleasant illusions we tell ourselves to make it no more than a part of ourselves.

#10 Comment By Rob R On March 7, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

I did not read the film as endorsing Jep’s point of view, any more than it definitively endorses the Saint’s. I saw the finale as redemptive by way of C. S. Lewis’s notion that, since all good things come from God, any good thing has the potential to lead us to Him. The truly devoted aesthete must eventually admit that immorality is ugly. I found the ending joyful for what I believe it had to say about life – that there is more to it, and that this “more” is available to us.

#11 Comment By Glaivester On March 7, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

@dominic1955, I don’t think that Rod is upset that the movie didn’t have a happy ending. He is upset that the movie thinks it has a happy ending when it doesn’t.

#12 Comment By collin On March 7, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

Wow! You really enjoyed disliking the movie more than anything. It appears the problem was it so similar to La Dolce Vita that you might as well watched that movie. (Sort like my problem with Casino, the new Spidermans, or your average Brian De Palma movie.)

Thanx for the recommendation as I feel like my DVD of La Dolce Vita tonight!

#13 Comment By Lele_Athlone On March 7, 2015 @ 2:09 pm

I found the movie incredibly sad because it really represent Italy and its elite’ as they stand now :shallow ,decadent and without any redemption on the horizon. In the past the elite’ would actually engage with society and try to improve it: Communist,Democratic Christian,Socialist or liberal they all believe that politics was something different from accounting and that the dignity of Man was central in society. Some were right some were spectacularly wrong but they produced ideas.
In the ’80 it started to change with the rise of “technocracy” the idea that politics should be left to specialized personnel.Specialized personnel that come from the world of banking and finance but it was seen as neutral ( as if it’s possible to have neutral policies).
The cultural classes retreated into navel gazing and solipsism and today the best are like Jep Gambardella but the vast majority are like the lady he verbally put KO: vain and empty but with an ego the size of the colosseum.
A lot of movie about contemporary Italy left me cold because they were clearly political infomercial ( if only Berlusconi was in jail the country will be a beacon of justice ) but this one cuts really deep because Jep and his circle really represent the country as it is now: hopeless.
I wish I was born in the ’50 to see each year better than the last and a lot of energy and ideas on how to build a better society than now seeing each year being worse than the last and all that is debated is how racist we are ( very racist or very very racist) and gay stuff ( personally I’m pro SSM I just wish it wasn’t THE issue if our time).

#14 Comment By Charles H. Featherstone On March 7, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

Sometimes, for some people, there is no redemption. That too, is a truth. A truth worth knowing. And exploring.

#15 Comment By Joey On March 7, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

I know nothing of this movie except from this blog post, so take this for what it’s worth.

It seems like if the message was just “art (as in, pure aesthetics) = redemption,” you wouldn’t include the Saint, especially in that last scene, dedicated to something purely spiritual without any audience to enjoy it. Maybe we’re supposed to see Jep not so much as redeemed, but on the PATH to redemption; climbing out of Infero into Purgatory, if you will?

I’m curious: does the movie make it seem like he will, in fact, write another book? If so, does it mention what about? Or for that matter, what his first book was about? If he has written, or plans to write, about something with real value (say, something based on the Saint herself), it could be that his obsession with aesthetics could still lead to something more.

#16 Comment By Mike Schilling On March 7, 2015 @ 3:01 pm

The premise sounds a lot like Two and a Half Men.

#17 Comment By David J. White On March 7, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

I don’t need redemption. I am not damaged, and certainly I am not damned

J_A: With the laundry list you give in your post, it sounds more like you’re trying to convince yourself of that, than convince Rod (or anyone else).

#18 Comment By M.P.Ryan On March 7, 2015 @ 3:53 pm

Rod,

I liked The Great Beauty very much. It seemed to be designed intentionally as a bookend to La Dolce Vita. Juxtapose the endings of both, Marcello on the beach with Jep on the yacht. Both reject a more perfect but harder way, Marcello prospectively by shrugging and turning away from the Madonna framed as she must be by the industrial cross, Jep retrospectively by realizing the iron-clad consequences of his choices. The old ‘non serviam’ in the eternal city.

And speaking of the eternal city, the end music was (to my mind) the key and the crowning beauty of the movie. As the poet once wrote, “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” and as that “great beauty” glides by under the bridges of the Tiber it is not a random choice that the director chooses the achingly beautiful work, “The Beatitudes” by contemporary Russian composer Vladimir Martynov. Originally a choral work, the Kronos Quartet thought it would work well with their strings. They were right.

#19 Comment By jaybird On March 7, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

it doesn’t come close to a Gamera film, let alone a master piece like Godzilla.

Hear, hear.

#20 Comment By Anne On March 7, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

According to Jeffrey Overstreet at Patheos, the movie’s philosophy (as cynical as Woody Allen’s, oh my) is in direct opposition to its aesthetical impact (uplifting to the max). He says in that sense, the Maker triumphs over the filmmaker, so go see.:)

I get the sense the director is saying we are wrong to look for meaning or beauty in any particular cause (the Communist) or religion (the Saint), because our only real happiness comes in fleeting moments of exquisite beauty and pleasure, mostly when we’re young, and remembering those moments is as good as it gets after that. Uplifting if you’re the kind of viewer who considers John Lennon’s “Imagine” an uplfting “hymn.”

#21 Comment By Sam M On March 7, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

“I credit the filmmaker for diagnosing the malaise of contemporary life among a certain sort of cultural elite.”

Well that’s not nothing.

And while you don’t demand a happy ending, it does seem like you are demanding one that’s didactic in the way you prefer.

Doesn’t the fact that the nun DOES see, and the guy does not, offer someone of your worldview (and opposing worldviews) to consider?

That is, should all movies end with the hero redeemed in a profoundly orthodox way?

[NFR: Of course not. But we all have to decide what we think about that ending. It did not make sense to me, given what came before it. But as you may have seen on this post, I’ve given it second thoughts. — RD]

#22 Comment By LemmysWart On March 7, 2015 @ 5:17 pm

Rome is my favorite European city. I lived there for a couple of years as a young man and am toying w/the idea of retiring there or at least getting a small apartment in Trastevere. I have so many fond memories of sitting on the fountain pictured at the top of this post, munching on a rectangle of pizza rustica or enjoying a gelato from Giolitti’s – the greatest ice cream parlor on the planet.

#23 Comment By Joan On March 7, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

I am reminded of a long-ago film called El Norte, in which two Guatemalan teenagers, brother and sister, flee their village after their parents are “disappeared” by paramilitaries, heading for the United States, where they figure they’d be safe. The film has some comic and some harrowing moments and ultimately ends in sorrow. It was very well made and I loved it, but the reviewer in the local alternative weekly hated it. He was a lefty, and he was furious that there was no Resistance, no Solidarity, no lesson in there about how The People, United, Can Never Be Defeated. It wasn’t propaganda for his cause, in other words.

You kinda sound like that reviewer. The main character doesn’t turn to Jesus. The movie is not a work of evangelization. Therefore, you’re not down with it, and never mind the aesthetics.

[NFR: Are you kidding me? You’ve been reading me all this time, and you actually think I expect the protagonist to come to Jesus and wrap things up with a tidy bow? Good grief. That is not at all the point of my complaint. It seemed to me radically insufficient to think that Jep had escaped the despair and emptiness of his life by choosing to cherish beauty more dearly. Certainly that’s a better place than where he started, but I thought, “That’s it? That’s what he’s learned?” It was an incomplete catharsis. As I’ve said on the new update, I might have misread the ending as being the director’s *destination* for Jep, when it is only a first step. — RD]

#24 Comment By charles cosimano On March 7, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

I think I’ll stick to fun movies that have titles like “Argon the Devil meets the Naked Cyborgs of Borneo.” This thing sounds too boring for words.

#25 Comment By ratnerstar On March 7, 2015 @ 5:55 pm

The premise sounds a lot like Two and a Half Men.

I smell a master’s thesis!

A Reflective Sheen: Intersectional Representations/Economies of Privilege in Italian Film and American Sitcoms

#26 Comment By J_A On March 7, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

@ David J. White

What about you? Do you need a redeemer? And aRe you scared that there is nothing that is going to redeem you from anything?

#27 Comment By Eamus Catuli On March 7, 2015 @ 7:04 pm

Just from the description, this movie sounds remarkably like Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, which also raises the question of how its characters are going to find spiritual meaning, but settles in the end {SPOILER ALERT} for having them gaze in awe at the vastness of the Grand Canyon.

[NFR: I saw that movie when it first came out in 1989, I think it was. I was 22, and thought it was pretty amazing. Twenty years pass, and I find that I’ve forgotten how the movie ends, but remembered that I liked the film very much. I rented it a second time, and could not believe how trite and unsatisfying the ending was. — RD]

#28 Comment By Jonathan On March 7, 2015 @ 7:06 pm

Is it pride which cannot last? What remains after years of hiding behind this mask but ashes and broken memories — broken memories of what could have or should have occurred or the shattered pieces of a mirror reflecting the hollowed out narrowness of being an imposter imitating life. And what remains but this hollowness an attachment to a mask which betrays. Here there is no joy as there is no genuine being and hence no redemption.

Once again, your blog is on the mark.

Thank you.

#29 Comment By Chas S. Clifton On March 7, 2015 @ 7:07 pm

I wish that people would not use “Epicurean” as an adjective meaning high-living, drinking the best wines, etc.

In reality, Epicurus taught that we should avoid political entanglements, avoid the moral quagmires of power-seeking, and live simply, without hassle. He was also an atheist in a polytheistic society; make of that what you will.

#30 Comment By Clare Krishan On March 7, 2015 @ 7:23 pm

Disclaimer – haven’t seen the movie or read his book – but, caught in the net of your ” non-spoiler” I’m intrigued enough to respond to your appeal to “tell me if I’m misreading it. IMHO you cannot imagine a world without God and experience disappointment resulting from your expectation attenuated to trinitarian forms. Since John of the Cross we’ve known about the TWO dark nights of the soul… from dark via temporal detachments into dark-n-light,* and then from this simple ‘flat’ binary moralism towards a radiating ‘solid’ illumination via a more severe detachment not from the love of the world but from love of self to transcend ‘this vale of tears’ and arrive at [in Dante’s schema] paradise … Virgil’s pagan world can help anyone willing to pay the ferryman [even a ‘glad-rag’ like Brad Pitt can sway one in favor of apotheois with the pathos of his two gold coins set atop his heroic eyesockets after seeing Briseis one last time in the movie “Troy”] and cross the Styx. But to truely *know* what company you will be keeping when you get there isn’t possible without *understanding* of what you speak, to posit a prayerful petition to a higher power in control of the afterlife.

The movie seems to be content to take the audience iceskating on the frozen wasteland of a soul’s resigned surrender to Nirvana, lauding the effete esoteric onanism found in a nihilism such as Nietzsche’s and Schopenhauer’s, the beastly ‘scratch my itch” banality of evil identified by Arendtz, the heart of darkness of Conrad. There’s no ‘there’ there: the flinging of sarcastic barbs serves to ‘pop’ any illusion that there even might *be* … for to entertain such an idea… hurts.

In the spiritual life compunction is seen as a gift, but in a materialist dialectic of history anything that hurts is automatically bad. According to such thinking the purpose of time in the grand march of History is for man to acquire the means to avoid… time’s diminishment of self, a the cosmos of “pointland” time is only a means to a pointless end, the ourobouros of sin always self-destructs.

Warning: Dreher-bait (and this Lent we’re trying in our household NOT to read the DailyMail stream of navel-gasing consciousness, so apologies in advance)
[1]
but in keeping with an earlier response pon the ‘epistemology’ thread, identify the taboo and your identify the fear, and then you can triangulate to discover the ‘normal’ soul hiding behind the anaesthetized self-comforting behaviour. Note the irony at the close of this sorry tale: “I opted for a C-section” says the male protaganist (who note bene, had logically absolutely no say medically-speaking re surgery since he had no female body parts to section, c-shaped or otherwise!) to avoid the shame of having to examine his Mom’s by now rather aged well worn private parts, and she in her bountiful wisdom concurs “there are certain things that he can’t and should not see.”

God have mercy on little Miles.
___

* imagine an Asian Yin-Yan figure the base of esoteric I’Ching combinatorics of the moon’s phases, all sinuous curves of mathematic mastery sufficient to satisfy superficial aesthetic deconstructionists – who thrive parasitically on our classically constructed world heritage, for absent the hard work of our forefathers there’d be no ‘there’ there for them to deconstruct [in similar fashion Buddhism was only successful with its empty self-defeating esoteric in a pyramid-scheme of expansion: moving from the Indian subcontinent to meld with far more ancient traditions in the Sinatic realm and destabilize the body politic with its total lack of regard for scholarly rigor needed to govern a complex society favoring languid aesthetic pleasures instead.

#31 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 7, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

I think I won’t waste 2 1/2 hours seeing this film. Thank you for the heads up.

#32 Comment By Mark Dirksen On March 7, 2015 @ 7:40 pm

Posts like this = why I read this blog. Thanks, as always, for your honest grappling.

FWIW, that moment Jeb recalls at the end brings back the identical one in my own life. What I remember more than her breasts (which were fine!) was her gaze upon me: bemused, affectionate, a little afraid and a little proud. Not an insignificant moment at all.

#33 Comment By Alan Cross On March 7, 2015 @ 7:45 pm

J_A,

Thanks for your honestly, and I do not mean that in a pandering sense. You see life from a human-centered perspective and you are justified in your own eyes by your actions because you set your own standards, or you follow standards that you have decided you are able to keep. Based on your standards you are not damned. Fair enough.

Rod, and others, have different framework that they live from. They (we) see God as the standard as revealed in Scripture and through the Church and He is the center. Based on that standard, salvation/redemption is both necessary and possible because of Christ. So, that frames reality.

We know that there is a secular/humanistic view. We are bombarded by it all day every day. Why are you surprised that there is a religious view and that religious people actually believe it? You can reject it. That is your right. But, when you do, you will necessarily base your life on some other set of standards/law/redemption, as you quite obviously have. You have attained salvation in your own eyes and are satisfied. In a way, you have your own religion that you are working out and there is nothing wrong with engaging in the conversation between different worldviews.

We will all know which view was right at some point, either at the end of this life or at the beginning of the next.

#34 Comment By Clare Krishan On March 7, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

in the ‘sunlight disinfects’ sense, it’s no accident the world had to wait for Christians to see a need to solve the lunar-solar ‘dark night’ of calendrical computation ie why man cannot ‘count on’ the sidereal zodiac to protect you from your martial-minded neighbors who watch from whence the winds blow and stopped waiting for tardy Taurus, instead elevating Aries to lead them in spring-time battle formation (the earth’s procession means the asterisms Dante refers to in 1300 AD where many months ahead of those Abram may have gazed mournfully heavenward, and lo’ he conveniently found a Ram in a bush and slaughtered it instead of his son Isaac that lent itself to the biblical-historical narrative Dante composed from: if time is your enemy, does it really matter how you account for it in historical terms? Stay home, enjoy your leisure in the palace and let the peons do the messy stuff? Abram could have done the same, and we may still be enjoying his poetic reflections imprinted on the clay tablets of Ur [2]
but we’d have no clue of his Name. His fate in Sheol would be anonymousm and Dante would have had to find another celestial steward to shepherd the pagan souls in Limbo…

No, as “Abraham’s bosom” testifies (he “got a pair” literally in Hebrew, L. ‘testes’) and got off his bum seeking to penetrate the dark mystery of why Taurus was so tardy… along the way he earned himself a thumb’s up from the heavens signifying how he had come to his senses (and earned a new name, too, perfecting his earth-bound 4-consonants by inserting a perfecting 5th Hebrew quincunx ‘het’ ה — which incidentally also means the number ‘5’ in Hebrew, in case you missed the subtle poetic sense in the non-mathematically accurate KJV translation) equivalent to a passing grade on the geography test having learned the four cardinal directions and come to *know* which way is up and what being centered truely means, a sign he’d bless his twin sons with at his passing — but I’m not going to spoil the plot twist of how their opinionated mother scoffs at ‘geography school’ so they have to go off and learn the four cardinal directions the hard way by striving to find the true center and where’s up (incidentally where the country we call Israel gets its name from and why many a proud nation ends in -stan, [3] they think *they’re* the perfect center of the universe set midway between E and W, N and S, they’re usually not that bothered where up is or if the Tetragram agrees).

Civilization has been on a roller-coaster of a journey ever since…

our current nemesis ISIS promotes a sophisticated new rhetoric in their dialectic of persuasion: the threat of the raised index finger! It signifies they *know* that you don’t know the mind of God [a thumb’s up for merely having learned God’s will is so… how can I say it, so YankeeDoodleDandy, so chilled-out?). Christian’s have been known to use the middle-finger in the past (to differ with those hell bent on ill-will) here’s a useful resource on spiritual sign language in Latin (scroll to Epilogue) if you’re curious: [4]
And fear not [5]
it can’t hurt – its Lent!

#35 Comment By JamesP On March 7, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

Perhaps the film maker intended to create a Rorschach test. That would be rather artsy, wouldn’t it?

#36 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On March 10, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

@J_A

You believe in Transcendent Good. But you don’t know it.

#37 Comment By Alan On March 15, 2015 @ 7:55 pm

Friends in Rome watched this there the same time we watched this afternoon, and then we talked.

The first third of the movie moved very slowly, and then picked up. The beginning of the end is noticeable when Jep’s friend, the adulating one, decides to leave Rome for his home town. Jep tries to fathom this, and his questions seem to be the only time he took more than sarcastic notice of his admirer.

The last party of the film, at Jep’s, Jep being the one who wants the power to destroy parties, is notable because his party was ended by the Saint, who simply refuses to give the interview that Jep’s editor had been lead to believe would happen. Instead she turns the tables and interviews him, asking the two questions, demonstrating that the power to close the party is greater than the power to ruin it.

La Dolce Vita ends after the revelers have partied all night, and the sun rising on the beach. In The Great Beauty, the sun rises over the rooftops of Rome. But the revelers have all gone, Jep is left almost alone except for the Saint and her animals to face what you have pointed out passes for redemption.

But after seeing it I think that you are being too hard on the ending, considering where modern culture is at. Coming from a modern, I would say that very slight upturn, that little nod to optimism, is actually quite a strong statement of faith. For comparison, just look how La Dolce Vita ends. That party went on into nihilism and meaninglessness. This was different. You are left with the feeling that it ends with at least a potential trajectory into faith, and that’s a lot, coming from modernity.

#38 Comment By Alan On March 17, 2015 @ 9:40 am

Before you archive this, one final thought. I was thinking about the very last scene, when Jep sits on the yacht and perhaps discovers that roots might be important, the haunting choral piece keeps coming back to me, William Blake’s the Lamb probably sung by King’s College Choir. It’s selection at this point in the film seems deliberately leading us to a conclude that Jep might on a trajectory to something like redemption.

Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?..
He is called by thy name
For he calls himself a Lamb…