Director Paolo Sorrentino’s film, The Great Beauty (Italian: La grande bellezza), is a lovely mix of Mediterranean joie de vivre and Nordic existentialism that leaves the audience drenched in beauty and medium-heavy with melancholia. The main character, Jep (Toni Servillo), is a man of deep feeling, immersed in the timeless splendor of Roman imagery. But this is Rome at its most existential — no bustling crowds, only Jep walking the pre-dawn streets past cafes and squares eerily empty of people. The only crowds we see float above the streets — insulated rooftop parties of desperate and lonely jetsetters jamming into train dances to techno-pop music. This is Jep’s socialite crowd, which oddly elicits in the audience both heart-felt contempt and heart-felt sympathy.
The setting reinforces the painful doubleness of Jep and his circle. The grand architecture, the magnificent sculpture and gardens, the sublime soundtrack, Jep’s Roman world is filled with mind-boggling aesthetic beauty at every turn, and yet it strangely lacks — except in fits and starts — the beauty of human contact, human meaning. The film’s continuing sideshow of performance artists grabs at this lack ever more obsessively as it fails to generate the human warmth it seeks.
As he looks back over his life on his 65th birthday, Jep himself seems intermittently attuned to all this, as scenes of heartrending poignancy pop up arbitrarily and just as arbitrarily fade into the arc of the narrative. Jep has no regrets for the socialite life he’s lived, despite an awareness of its general emptiness. In his particular case, the emptiness is symbolized by the fact that he could never get back to his second novel. One could argue that the turning point for Jep – and the film is ambiguous about this as it is about everything – is the entrance of the Santa (Giusi Merli), an old woman destined for Catholic sainthood. She is frankly an old blubbering mess and her adoration a satire on church idiocy. And yet she is more than that. Everything she says can be taken two ways. Is it senile inanity or profound genius? The best example is when she tries to tell Jep why she lives on bitter roots. “Because,” she stutters, half-comatose, as if she can’t get her brain around the simplest question. And she seems to relinquish the effort with a dismissive remark that “roots are important.” It seems a throwaway line. And yet she does painstakingly climb the Spanish Steps on her knees, however ridiculous that task might seem, in contrast to Jep’s decades-long inability to start his second novel. And then Jep does return to his roots, at least in the space of imagination. He re-imagines his sexual awakening with a teenage girl on the beach, re-imagines a world so naïve, so absurd, that full, rich human contact was possible. And that, we are led to believe amidst the lyrical beauty of the film’s final images, is the beginning of his second novel.