La Grande Bellezza by Paolo Sorrentino, Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards, could be seen as a filmic diptych: at once a stunning portrait of the ‘Eternal City’ – referencing also the work of auteurs like Fellini and Antonioni – and an intricate portrait of the ambiguous cynical writer Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, delivering a masterclass of acting methods). It is a diptych because Rome serves not just as a backdrop, but as a city with an enigmatic personality to explore through the biographical routes of the main character. Hence the life of the city speaks about the life of the character, at times desolate and enchanting, at others populated and vaguely bitter. But given the magnitude of the city’s grandeur, human action within it seems comparably trivial, even nonsensical.
Sorrentino captures this existential perspective by allowing characters to pass by or orbit around Jep, who is the centre of this peculiar universe. La Grande Bellezza is orchestrated narratively like a web, allowing a parade of faces, lovers, acquaintances, friends, potential enemies or bigger crowds to encircle the protagonist, to punctuate the narratives differently, to articulate the dramatic semitones within the late middle-age crisis of the disillusioned but not yet defeated aesthete, Jep. Indeed, Jep recognises and treasures the beauty around him: in his personal moments he is contemplative and compassionate, almost a fictional alter ego to the snobbish and wry personality found amidst the decaying glamour of the bourgeoisie or the decrepit façade of politics.
Jep is a postmodern flâneur, a distanced observer of life around him. Whether he attends a funeral, an ‘art’ performance or a party, there’s always a sense of inconsolable grief, a bitterness for life’s contradictions. This is his drama: he seems to know what others refuse to see and acknowledge. The discordant feeling is vividly realised in the film’s party scene, which opens with a woman screaming, before the camera dives into a writhing, feral mass of dancing bodies. We are now in a techno blizzard, probably in some Roman terrace where posh Italians celebrate their idea of ‘good’ life, allowing themselves to lose control in this carnival of the senses. A female go-go dancer – a stereotype of Italy’s young female TV personalities, called le veline – frolics on a bar above the cheering crowd, whose arms are outstretched in ecstasy, as if conducting the heavenly vibrations of the music.
A frenzy of ‘far l’amore’ and ‘mueve la colita’ that ended with a storm of economic scandals and the abusive narcissism of the ruling charlatans
The camera skips and bumps along the wild mass, momentarily capturing the pulsating rhythm and heedless mood of the people dancing. Smiling faces, raised Martini cocktails, bodies loose and sexually available, eyes wild with chemical fervour. This is the glittering surface of the 2000s’ ‘dolce vita’: a frenzy of ‘far l’amore’ and ‘mueve la colita’ that ended with a storm of economic scandals and the abusive narcissism of the ruling charlatans – and Sorrentino, true to his main character’s insightfulness, gives a disarming and poetic premonition of this turning point. It’s no coincidence, then, that Jep is found in the heart of party – if not him being the heart, since it’s his birthday. The world is already upside down, but Jep will allow himself to be momentarily distracted, to kiss a girl or two, before he withdraws from this madness.
Meanwhile, the crowd splits into two groups, male and female, as the rhythm changes into a Latin ‘anthem’ of the era, one of those that everyone seems to be able to dance to. Dancing isn’t the main issue here: it’s the uplifting vibe, the synchronised clapping, the role-playing the song implies. The choreography is all about wiggling shoulders, swaying hips and the sort of ‘humping mechanics’ that underline the sexual tension already established in the party. Women boost their breasts while men gesticulate as if squeezing lemons, grimacing so ridiculously that even Rabelais would envy their facial expressions. In this chain of action-reaction, the hands are lifted up, then extended as if to halt the partner who is standing opposite, then up again, a kind of tug-of-war that never ends. But just as the scene seems to culminate, the movements become heavier, the tempo slows down – a wayward descent into Jep’s inner state. In the middle of this hedonistic parade, he switches off his party mood and looks directly into the camera.
Jep’s gaze is penetrating, as if trying to look beyond the screen, to exit the reality he is trapped in. Or maybe he just looks with astonishment at the great resemblance of his reality to ours, a rare example of ‘great beauty’ in cinema. ●