“I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.”
We open with a tableaux. The camera moves around the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola in sweeping fashion, giving us a sense if place, time (morning), and grand beauty. The characters are focussed on, one by one. A group of tourists from a foreign land walk around, taking photos, observing ancient architecture and traditions. A man washes in the fountain, a sacred space. A woman wearing a brightly coloured jacket and a string of pearls smokes next to a statue while reading a newspaper. We glide across the water, and look up to see a choir singing a sacred song, wearing modern clothing. The new is juxtaposed against the old and the sacred, meeting each other and trying to coexist, but the new seeming to triumph. Suddenly, a symbol of the new, a tourist, drops to the ground, from, as Sorrentino explains “beauty so powerful that you can die if you look longer”. A Greek tragedy unfolds within the space of five minutes, and the cycle begins again.
“This is how it always ends. With death. But first, there was was life.”
The subsequent scene (one of my favourites of the year, and one that is truly best experienced in a cinema) is the antithesis of the previous, focussing on the richest example of life, as opposed to death. There is no glimpse of the ‘old’. An explosion of light, colour, sound, and movement. The viewer wishes to be at the party as well. Even a dancer, who is not part of the explosion of action occurring outside, contributes to the atmosphere, the camera switching to her perspective. A moment of minor chaos (“I’ve lost my cell phone!”) is overshadowed by a joyful scream directly in front of the camera. It focusses on individual faces, all bopping to the music, enjoying the party. The focus starts to be pulled away from the dancing, showing partygoers sleeping on the fringes of the action. An elaborately dressed woman appears out of an oversized cake, before the camera focusses on Jep, the centre of the cyclical journey that is about to occur. He is greeted by revellers, you can see the elation on his face. But during the upbeat, energetic dance that follows, the realisation of death and sadness suddenly dawns on Jep. He breaks away from the celebration, which continues around him while he delivers a melancholic thought on the looming presence of old age in his life.
“To this question, as kids, my friends always gave the same answer: “Pussy”. Whereas I answered “The smell of old people’s houses”. The question was “What do you really like the most in life?””
All around him, Jep sees death. The death of tradition with a cardinal that will only talk about food, and a nun that gets botox injections in her hands. The physical death of his first love and latest acquaitance. The death of creativity, with each artist (including himself) struggling in some way. It’s a realisation that comes upon him, that the ‘old Italy’ is desperate, struggling with it’s traditions and identity against the new. He goes to many grand displays of art, but only sees struggle and death. A performance artist is injuring herself for shock value. Each player in the tapestry is individually introduced as they would be in a play, even through they are only present for a short amount of time, yet they leave a mark on the audience and Jep’s journey through life, death, and identity. The most haunting and emotionally powerful of these displays (and another one of the best scenes of the year) is that from a child painter, experiencing the death of the most carefree period of their life due to other people’s desperation to find meaning. The child is struggling with life, being a ‘grown up’ who is forced to work (the old) but wanting to be a child (the new). After she has visibly been injured, the display commences, where she begins wearing classic children’s clothing, but after throwing paint at a piece of calico, she is covered in paint that has melded together to create a monotone. The pretty dress and shoes are no longer what they once were, she is no longer a child. The visible anguish in her voice and face, the discomfort on the witnesses faces, is enough to haunt any audience member.
The Great Beauty is a beast of a film, living up to it’s title in terms of grandeur, scale, and run time, one that offers up a wealth of things to discuss. It’s tiring to watch, you feel as thought you have been on a tour of the city. It is beautiful, with some of the best cinematography of 2013; emotional, and is wildly theatrical, moving through countless settings, characters and scenarios smoothly, as thought backdrops are being changed and performers are entering and leaving the stage. It plays like a two-and-a-half-hour performance art piece, a tableaux, a guided tour and commentary of a city
“Where the sacred and the profane are bound to each other”.
The Great Beauty is currently in limited release across Australia (January 23).
MA (strong nudity), 141 mins.