In the final chapter of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon tells us that in the early days of the Renaissance, before Rome was revived by a series of powerful popes, a brilliantly learned apostolic secretary (with sublime penmanship) and a ferocious book hunter by the name of Poggio Bracciolini grabbed a friend one day and hiked up the Capitoline Hill to carefully survey and record the ruins around them. Rome was in a bad way, and because Poggio had read all the books about the great city, he knew just how to mourn her former magnificence. The benches where senators once oversaw the empire’s finances and battled Caesars were now buried under a hill of dung. The forum, where citizens used to assemble for triumphs that brought back riches from the frontiers and to hear speeches that were transcribed for eternity, had become a farm that grew pot-herbs and raised pigs that were fed slops. “The place and the object gave ample scope for moralizing on the vicissitudes of fortune,” Gibbon writes in a famous passage, “which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave.”
The Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has now given us a lush and pensive poetizing of Gibbon’s great decline and fall. Of course his new film, The Great Beauty, in all its symbolic representation of Italy, has become the country’s official entry to the 2014 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, and it has already been nominated for five European film awards.
The Great Beauty begins on April 20, Rome’s birthday, on a hill similar to the one Poggio ascended, but on the other side of the Tiber, at the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola. Cannon charges are fired in celebration. The film’s very first shot is just that, a shot: the camera peers down the barrel and backs off just before the explosion. Sorrentino launches us into orbit—or is it a violent birth?—and the camera soars and glides around the Janiculum Hill in an almost wordless prologue. We are introduced to Rome reborn, ancient and eternal but all the more potent. That’s unfortunate for a Japanese tourist who’s taking pictures under the bronze sun, because he just drops dead without warning. Sorrentino gives no explanation, but we know the reason: Rome is so beautiful, it kills.
Come nightfall, Sorrentino acquaints us with his version of Poggio, the dandy socialite and once promising writer Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who is also celebrating his birthday, though at 65 he’s a tad younger than the Eternal City, which earned that honor not yesterday but 2,000 years ago. Jep is throwing a glam party for himself on his vast terrace that’s lit like the coolest nightclub—and it’s even overlooking the Colosseum. The women dance too vigorously, and for what? They seem to loathe the lecherous suits they’re bumping with. One needs a good, long morning after to recover from this overly bouncy hoopla, these frivolous performances that seem to take up so much of our time that they can no longer be seen as frivolous. And Jep doesn’t wait until morning to ruminate. He turns around, shimmying with minimal effort and maximal polish, sporting a nicely tailored coat and an FDR grin, complete with cigarette between upper teeth and lower lip, but his smile is so exaggerated that his eyes are all but shut. He’d rather not look.
When he does open his eyes, he wears a worried and slightly ashamed expression, as he stands as still as a resigned statue while the throng that encircles him keep on their pulsating beat. He liked the smell of old people’s homes when he was a kid, he tells us, while his friends liked “pussy.” From this bit of information he deduces that he was always destined for “sensibility.” Welcome to the come down.
Jep’s decline and fall has been going on since his 20s, when he wrote a prize-winning novel called The Human Apparatus. He hasn’t come out with another book since, but has been preoccupied with generating well-paid interviews with and profiles of silly performance artists (“don’t send me to interview someone who head-buts walls again”) and purported saints. Jep has accepted his mediocrity, so this isn’t an angsty writer’s block film like Barton Fink, Adaptation, or 8 ½.
But, unlike Fellini in 8 ½, Sorrentino isn’t interested in helping his protagonist resolve his personal problems so that he can create again. He’s intrigued by how middle-aged, world-weary men take in the bedlam around them. That’s been so since 2004’s The Consequences of Love, which saw the gently imposing Servillo playing a tongue-tied businessman who has been living at a Lugano hotel for eight years, powered by a weekly shot of heroin, and who makes the mistake of having gazed at the hotel’s beautiful barmaid for so long that he falls in love with her, and thus invites inevitable heartbreak and a suicidal clash with the mob.
In The Family Friend (2006), an old man comes out of his cocoon of foulness to fall in love with the soon-to-be-married daughter of a man he’s lending money to. Two years later, Sorrentino invited Servillo back in Il Divo to play former Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, a shrewd political godfather who was powered by a weekly shot of ruthless violence. At the start of the film he found himself in the last of his seven terms as prime minister, so he runs for president (unsuccessfully). And then came 2011’s This Must Be the Place, Sorrentino’s foray into American cinema, where he teamed up with Sean Penn, who played a haggard former rock star so unamused by the people of the world’s reaction to his impersonation of Edward Scissorhands—Kabuki makeup, exploding poodle hair—that he has to go to America to hunt for Nazis to rediscover the thrill of life. These been-there, done-that men are all looking to catch a second wind, though when they arrive at their destination they might not necessarily like what they find.
Whether Jep finds anything at all is the mystery to Sorrentino’s latest film. Turning 65 was bad enough, but Jep really begins his quest when he finds out that the first love of his life, Elisa, whom he hasn’t seen since she left him in Naples in 1970, is dead. Her husband, who has read her diary, tracks Jep down and tells him that he was her one true love.
This bit of flattery comes at the price of introspection, but what can Jep do but to question what other past, present, and future moments of his life hold Chekhovian significance? Every frivolity henceforth becomes important. He might start writing again, he tells his friend Romano, a struggling playwright who will eventually be so disappointed by Rome that he leaves without even packing his stuff. Jep also confides in him that sleeping with “a great beauty” isn’t enough for him anymore, not at his age, at which point he seems to make it his mission to not only experience moments of beauty but to bring his skeptical vision of truth and appreciation to the people in his life.
Like Dante through the circles of hell, Jep has always closely observed and recorded the lives of fools and sinners and frauds. But now, like Ulysses in the Mediterranean, he begins to engage and take on the gods and monsters he meets, with mixed results. When Stefania, a righteously Communist Party novelist and TV pundit, boasts of her devotion to political responsibility, Jep dismisses her life mercilessly. “You’re 53, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us,” he says. “Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair.” No longer able to ignore a friend’s request to talk to her psychologically troubled son because he runs into him at a restaurant, he implores the youngster not to take Proust and Turgenev so seriously, but the boy kills himself that very evening. He takes Ramona, a woman who works as a stripper at her father’s club, under his wing, because she says she’s not “cut out for beautiful things”—never fear, he’ll take her to parties, show her paintings and sculptures in the chiaroscuro night, and educate her on proper fashion and etiquette for a funeral. There’s also a grotesque doctor who gives botox injections like he’s giving the sacraments; a Cardinal who used to be the world’s best exorcist but now only cares about food recipes; and Sister Maria, a 103-year-old nun who sleeps on the floor and only eats roots.
Jep even visits Isola del Giglio to see the wreckage of the Costa Concordia, listing and reclining on the rocks like a giant sea monster. “Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination,” wrote Céline, who, like Jep, claimed to be a misanthrope, and whose lines from Journey to the End of Night were used as the film’s epigraph. “You just have to close your eyes. It’s on the other side of life.” When Jep closes his eyes, he sees Elisa and himself, young and naïve and with their whole empty lives ahead of them. So he goes to Naples to relive the memory. Like Charles Foster Kane, and like Guido in 8 ½, a man’s puppy obsession helps free him from his prison.
When I asked Sorrentino how he came up with the film, he told me that for a long time, he’d been looking for a character who could be a traveler between worlds. Then he finally found Jep. Like Marcello in La Dolce Vita, Jep is a journalist and a flâneur with nothing to do. And like Guido in 8 ½, he’s always asked when his next work will be finished. The Great Beauty is a theme and variation in two keys, the major being the sacred (or spirituality), and the minor being the profane (or sensuality)—and so are all of Fellini’s films. Recall La Dolce Vita’s opening, where a helicopter is towing a statue of Christ, while the pilot and Marcello are distracted by three women in bikinis sunbathing on a rooftop. Or the Cardinal in 8 ½, who tells Guido that what is not of God is of the Devil. In The Great Beauty, Sorrentino introduces us to an actor who is starring in two TV dramas. “I’m playing a Pope in one, and a junkie on the road to recovery in the other.”
Many say that The Great Beauty is the new Fellini, with its handsome surrealism, baroque expressions, and casual opulence. Sorrentino makes no secret of his admiration for Fellini, but there’s almost no benefit to being compared to that art-house superstar, lest we forget how La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ were received by the cognoscenti back in the day as heavy-handed but essentially empty fluff, especially compared to, say, the real emptiness of Antonioni and the true heavy stuff of Rossellini. La Dolce Vita is all about people like Fellini and 8 ½ is all about the terrible bummer of being a successful director like Fellini. Many of today’s critics still feel that way, understandably, but the point is moot—those movies are by now beloved by far more interesting people than critics.
If Sorrentino has learned from Fellini, it is that today’s audience requires something more balanced and nuanced. So the camera vacillates between loving Jep and holding him in contempt. He’s able to seem witty and justifiably blunt against head-butting artists who talk in the third person and repeat slogans like “I live on vibrations, extra-sensory ones.” But he himself reproduces the same saying about Flaubert wanting to write a novel about nothing. Like the Colosseum, Jep both stands above and is a part of the grotesqueries that revolve around him. Sometimes he shuns them, sometimes he hosts them. Hedonistic distractions have existed from Caligula and Nero to Andreotti and Berlusconi. The Great Beauty portrays the Eternal City looking at all of this with intimate amusement and distanced disapproval. Rome is graceful, outlandish, grand, cold, eternal, in flux, and full of olive-rich contradictions. What The Great Beauty and Fellini share is the Roman light—3,000 years of viscous sun. Jep says he never wrote another book because he was looking for the great beauty and he never found it. But it was always here, at home. Rome, this must be the place.