Thinking About ‘The Great Beauty’
(Readers, over the weekend, we had a really good thread going on the movie The Great Beauty, but the server problems ate the post. I understand the web folks are trying to get it back. On the off chance that it is irrecoverable, I’m going to repost it below, with both the Saturday evening update, and a third update I wrote just now. Below, the film’s trailer; the haunting music that begins the clip is from Arvo Pärt; I’ve been listening to a lot of his work since watching the movie.)
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?”
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: 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 evenmore 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 isprecisely 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?
UPDATE.3: (Note well: I will discuss below the words Jep says in the final sequence of the film. If you’ve come this far, there really aren’t any spoilers. But consider this fair warning.) Reading the novel Death Comes for the Deconstructionistyesterday, I hit upon a passage that helped me to understand why I had such a negative response to the conclusion of The Great Beauty. In this passage from the book, Richard Pratt, the literary theorist whose death is at the center of the plot, delivers a lecture the night before his murder:
“And reading is now just as impossible as writing. Writing used to be thought of, in the innocence of yesterday, as perhaps the highest and truest expression of self. Now, we see clearly, that it is, rather the death of self. To commit oneself to words is to commit suicide. It is to sacrifice the personal to the impersonal, the noumenal to the mechanical. What are letters on the page if not the infinitely interchangeable symbols of impersonality? …”
Pratt urges his listeners not to go to Dante to find truth; go, rather, to The Wizard of Oz, which he calls the paradigmatic work of our time. Why? Because it is about how everything is illusion:
“And so our fearful band kills the Witch with a ritual baptism of water and returns to the Wizard for their reward. But what do they find? The Wizard is a fake, just like our trickster writer. He is not Oz the Great and Powerful; he is the little man behind the curtain pulling the levers. And that curtain is the curtain of Language, and those levers the manipulations of style. And when the illusion is discovered, what does the Wizard-writer do? He tells our seekers that he has nothing to give them but a point of view, a way of looking at things. If you want courage, think yourself courageous, and, from one point of view, you will be. Likewise with love, and wisdom, and yes, even home.”
… “This sleight-of-hand is the author’s final trick before his abdication. When he can no longer be Oz the Great and Powerful, the Wizard-writer is free to leave, to fly off in her or his balloon to explore the stratosphere. This is as it should be. When we acknowledge that literature offers us neither wisdom, nor love, nor courage, nor home — our nostalgia for them notwithstanding — then we can allow the writer to float freely on the winds of Language, taking us everywhere and nowhere.”
Pratt’s point is that there is no such thing as truth, no reality beyond interpretation, no purpose, only freedom.
Now, consider that point in light of the quote from Céline that Sorrentino uses to start the film:
“Travel is very useful and it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our own 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, simply a fictitious narrative.”
The world is not real. It is only interpretation. And now, Jep’s final words:
“But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world … blah, blah, blah. Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don’t deal with what lies beyond. Therefore … let this novel begin.”
The reference to beginning a novel is significant, as others have asked Jep several times in The Great Beauty why he didn’t write another book. It’s only when the saint asks him – in the scene that precedes the final sequence – that he gives any semblance of an answer: “I was looking for the great beauty, but I didn’t find it.”
So does this mention of a novel and a refusal to ride off into the great beyond signal a rebirth in Jep? Or is it all just a “fictitious narrative,” a game of avoiding digging beneath the surface and getting at those roots that the saint says are so important?
Jep’s final words:
“After all …
It’s just a trick.
It’s just a trick.”
What does that mean? What, precisely, is the trick?
I initially took it to mean that Jep was deciding that life has no meaning beyond interpretation, and that the secret to renewing his will to live is to trick himself into believing otherwise. He and his coterie distract themselves from thinking and living seriously, by keeping themselves moving, never going anywhere. You get the idea that they are afraid to think, for fear that if they stopped moving, everything would collapse around them. In this interpretation, Jep concludes that everything is a matter of illusion, of a trick of the eyes, and the “trick” to living meaningfully is to go beneath the glittering surface of things — exploring the “roots,” as the Saint puts it. I initially interpreted this ending as saying more or less what Richard Pratt says.
However, it is possible that Jep is saying that seeing the world from a position of ironic detachment — “embarassment of being in the world” — prevents him from ever committing himself to anything deeper. That his irony restricts him to the world of blah blah blah. To see past that, to recover the innocent gaze, one has to accept that there is something real beneath the surface of things. That there is more than just the image. One of the film’s most harrowing scenes depicts the corruption of innocence of an art dealer’s child. Her father orders her, against her will, to carry out a piece of performance art, creating a vacuous canvas that is emblematic of nothing but childish rage. Someone pities the poor miserable girl, but someone else says don’t feel sorry for her, “that child earns millions.”
Jep’s redemption, then, comes not from accepting that there is an afterlife, but from rejecting jaded, world-weariness, and trying to see the great beauty in the world — the beauty that is right in front of him in Rome, but hidden by the everyday. I think of this bit from REM’s “Nightswimming,” one of my favorite songs. It’s a meditation on nostalgia:
Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I’m not sure all these people understand
It’s not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
The recklessness in water
They cannot see me naked
These things they go away
Replaced by every day.
In this case, the “trick” to rediscovering life is simply to decide to look deeper, to try to see with fresh eyes. Eh?
I cannot decide which interpretation is the better one, though I tend to the pessimistic reading — that is, the one that sees Jep as taking the position that as a writer, he has the freedom to construct reality as he wishes it to be. But I can’t reconcile that with what the Saint told him — unless Sorrentino wishes us to see Jep as missing the opportunity for true redemption that the Saint gave him. That doesn’t seem right either; I think Sorrentino really does think Jep is redeemed.
If so, the redemption Jep gets may be the best a materialist can hope for after the failure of Marxism. It is something. But it is not enough.
Well. For a movie that I started out thinking had been a complete waste of my time, The Great Beauty sure has made me think.