Years ago, while a student at USC’s Cinema Production Department, I took a class taught by Arthur Knight, whose The Liveliest Art: A Panoramic History of the Movies was a standard textbook at colleges and universities all over the world. In it he argued that cinema was the liveliest art because it incorporated all arts. It’s a notion that was dear and sacrosanct to all of us cinephiles. For centuries it was cathedrals that incorporated all arts; then it was opera; in the 20th century, supposedly, cinema. Nowadays that’s hardly the case. Hollywood blockbusters are made for the PG-13 audience, except for a few “serious” movies that aim at Academy Awards recognition and, under the pretense of being socially or culturally relevant, are generally platitudinous. Then there are the inevitably marginal “independent” movies that, far from incorporating all arts, are minimalistic not only in production values but above all in content.
Seeing Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, therefore, was a surprise. Here is a film that does just what Arthur Knight promised in his outmoded book: it attempts to incorporate all arts—and succeeds triumphantly. I haven’t seen anything so réussi and riveting since The Big Lebowski, though they are two very different films. From 1998 to 2013 it has been, admittedly, a long drought.
Critics have praised the film but, I’d venture, for the wrong reasons, such as, for example, a vivid depiction of decadence in the Berlusconi era (really? Hasn’t Rome, from the poetae novi through Emperor Caligula to the Borgias, already written the ultimate handbook on decadence?). Many critics have also made the seemingly inevitable comparisons with how Rossellini and Fellini utilized Rome in some of their most memorable films. While we must applaud such perspicacious reviewers for taking History of Italian Cinema 101, The Great Beauty shines of its own light.
Jep Gambardella, the leading character, turns sixty-five at a supremely lavish party thrown in his honor, and we since follow him in his long nocturnal walks through Rome to and from many a party and a soirée, while we become acquainted with his paradoxically warm detachedness and creeping nostalgia. As a young man he was the king of all socialites, publishing a novel early on that gave him fame, and then nothing else. He is now a full-time flâneur as well as a journalist who works very occasionally for an upmarket periodical, owns an apartment with a large terrace overlooking the Colosseum, and wears a variety of impeccably tailored bespoke suits.
What most critics cannot realistically know is that in Italy culture retains a largely regional denomination. Within thirty seconds of hearing an Italian speak I can tell where he or she is from. The city—and region—one belongs to doesn’t only influence their pronunciation of Italian, but their worldview. Aristocrats (and there are plenty of blue-blooded characters in Sorrentino’s film, including a count and a countess for hire for soirées) are trickier: their pronunciation is neutral; their worldview, not parochial. A different and more ancient type is that of the clericus vagans—the wandering student or professor who moved from town to town across Europe in search either of learning or of teaching. As both activities were carried out in Latin, whether the person hailed from Bologna, Padua, Paris, Oxford or Salamanca made no difference; their worldview was neither parochial nor non-parochial, but universal.
The character of Jep Gambardella is from Naples; so is the film director and even the actor who plays Jep, Toni Servillo, incidentally also a distinguished theater and opera director. Naples’s illustrious philosophical tradition and Weltanschauung are at the core of the entire work. Few realize that Naples is older than Rome; was for centuries Europe’s most populous and cultured city; and still boasts the largest historical center in the world. Among its philosophers are St. Thomas Aquinas, Giordano Bruno (from nearby Nola but educated in Naples), Giambattista Vico, Benedetto Croce. In high culture circles it is a known fact that the erudite Neapolitan has a distinctly Eastern worldview, a singular blend of fatalism and, one would say, Taoism.
It’s most unusual that a film would deal bluntly with high culture, as The Great Beauty does. There is plenty of deprecation and self-deprecating in it, but Jep Gambardella, who has attended parties with almost religious assiduousness since his youth and who normally sleeps during the morning and the early afternoon, from time to time quotes from authors (whom he must have read and metabolized already; he’s never shown reading anything, as if by now he had already absorbed all knowledge). In his personal library the observant watcher will notice a long shelf of books published by Adelphi, an Italian publishing house that since its inception in 1962 has uncompromisingly published rather rarefied texts. Admittedly, most of the authors Gambardella quotes are to be found in the canonical history of western literature. He is no esotericist, at least not ostensibly. But he yearns for aesthetic and metaphysical transcendence, of which there are more than glimpses throughout the film and especially toward the end. To the casual viewer he may seem world-weary; he is not, just disarmingly sincere. Things in general are not all that important or to be taken all that seriously, he’s come to realize, and many of them are just tricks, anyway. He also has a sharp wit that makes him, once more, a Neapolitan through and through. And indeed in the ancient history of both cities, Rome and Naples, rather than Rome alone, lies much of the film’s meaning. What decadence have they not already witnessed in the past? What vices, pretenses, fads, lies, persecutions, executions, invasions, rebirths, inventions, epidemics, grandiose ideas, follies, assorted aspirations and forms of government have they not already experienced?
Everything in the film is masterful: the photography, flying/flowing camerawork and editing; the dialogue and the acting; the music selection and its seamless editing; the deliberately thin plot that nevertheless keeps propelling the film forward; the many characters, sub-characters and sundry types; how the sublime is constantly yet effortlessly juxtaposed to the ridiculous; the overall wit and lightness of touch; and finally Rome herself, the eternal city, so insufferably, infuriatingly, absurdly yet nonchalantly beautiful, from her most celebrated sights down to her most recondite places.
I don’t know how many more years will pass before another film renders justice to the medium as this one does—all the more reason not to miss it while it’s been shown in “selected cities” around the country.