by ALEX CARNEVALE
La Grande Bellezza
dir. Paolo Sorrentino
The central character of The Great Beauty is the rather unfortunate-looking Jep (Toni Servillo). He postulates himself as a journalist of sorts, but he is more a critic of his culture. Since he resides in Rome this is no culture at all: it is a series of sex scenes bookended by lonely walks among ruins.
Rome began to fall for the first serious time in July of 1776. America was born on that day, or didn't you take social studies?
There is a scene in The Great Beauty where Jep, the master indiscriminator, happens upon a woman in a pool. (He has been peering through her fence.) "Aren't there any men who want to just tawk to you?" he growls while she paddles. Naturally, she accepts this peeping tom's invitation to a degrading party that evening. Jep was watching her bathe, what else could she have done?
Like any Roman after the fall, Jep requires no reason to use a woman, it is only a function of his being a Roman that dictates the misogyny. None of these people have ever even had the decency to watch Treme.
Toni Servillo attempts a brusque affability in the role, but he is badly undermanned for the part, appearing to be at most a disturbed creeper obsessed with his own failures, at best a non-murderous Patrick Bateman. He has a terrible habit of never moving his head to look at people, and this is not the only way he has totally abdicated his humanity. Humbert Humbert had like a scary amount of charm compared to this doltish fellow.
After publishing a mournful novelette, Jep acquires a kind of notional cache with some very desperate and pathetic people. Some have family who were complicit in the Fascist takeover of their country. Others are only intelligent enough to believe what they read.
Jep treasures this gross social life because he has not been able to write any fiction in over forty years. This case of writer's block leads him to go around interviewing artists, mostly women, who differ from him mostly because they have something to say and he does not. This disparity in inspiration angers him, so he tells the women that their art isn't very good, or goes off to have unprotected sex when his editor thinks he is reporting.
The party he invites the stripper lounging in the pool to is terribly unfun. The Great Beauty makes a congo line look like a scene in The Human Centipede; the viewer has no choice but to avert her eyes. In the shadow of neon and garbage, Jep and his friends wonder aloud what other countries think of Italy. This is most important to him, as if he were content with a bronze at a beauty pageant.
Rome is a pretty rough city for women, who at the very least are met with constant catcalls. Many of the men are not afraid to approach a woman alone and harass her, touch her body, suggest she put on winter booties when they are out of season, or make her murder someone in an Amanda Knox-esque fashion. It is even worse to be a man in Rome, The Great Beauty argues for like eight hours, because you have to witness all of this and are thus incriminated in the sexist effluvium by proxy.
These decadent events that celebrate the fall involve a great mix of ages. It is implied there is family money at work in these gatherings. The great mass of people at the soiree are constantly peeling back their heads and aiming them skywards. It isn't that the dancers don't enjoy their escapades, but it seems best to check if something more funsies is on the horizon.
There is little mention of God in The Great Beauty, for he is forsaken in the end, and that is why the city of Rome is cursed. In the painful and over-elaborate cinematography of the dying metropolis, Jep trolls for women in the shadows; there by the river! He is a connoisseur of people who he can decide not to be sympathetic towards later on.
"There is no reason anything is beautiful," wrote John Cage, who was beautiful. The Great Beauty attempts to convince us that even something aesthetically appealing on the surface can be disgusting underneath, a lesson most of us learn before third grade. Jep is unable to absolve himself from the decline that surrounds him, and that is the only heartening part about this cynical film. If a man tumbles from the roof of a building, he might very well enjoy his ride down. But coming down so quickly is a bit disorienting. A man could, probably, only fall so far so fast.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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