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?