Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty introduces its protagonist, aging journalist Jep Gambardella, right in the thick of things. After an airy, operatic overture Sorrentino immerses the audience in a busy rooftop party in Rome. A four-to-the-floor beat takes over the soundtrack, setting the rhythm for a series of shots that delineate a bacchanal celebration in progress. Models pose in cool indifference as lecherous men in suits make lewd propositions, while alcohol flows freely among the dancing limbs of the young and beautiful and the old and rich.
Eventually, between two lines of dancers, out steps Jep (Toni Servillo), coolly lighting a cigarette, his kindly face dazed under the influence of some substance. The party is a celebration of his 65th birthday, an anniversary that leaves him somewhat nonplussed. After a much-celebrated first novel in his youth, he parlayed his fame into a lengthy career as a reporter-princeling among Rome’s glitterati, but the film finds him stung by his inability to produce a follow up book.
In content and form The Great Beauty is plainly a tribute to Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – Jep could be Marcello from that film some forty-ish years on. But where that film is structured as a series of discreet chapters, each articulating some new facet of Marcello’s situation, Sorrentino is far looser in the way he shapes his material, to the film’s detriment.
As Jep begins along a meandering path toward facing up to his old age and his squandered potential, Sorrentino’s script places him in a loose series of episodes, each designed to culminate in a Joycean epiphany: in one he befriends an aging stripper, in another he confronts a saintly nun’s radical asceticism. One or two of these might be enough, but after a certain point the film feels like a long string of epiphanies.
Thankfully, Jep is as much tour guide as protagonist, taking the audience on a VIP journey into the aesthetic delights of Rome. The central pleasures of The Great Beauty are not narrative, but sensual; the film is a tribute to Italian art, architecture, bodies, and fashion.
Not coincidentally, it is this immersion in aesthetic distraction that is the core of Jep’s crisis as an artist. His writer’s block manifests as a kind of world-weariness. In one scene he visits the outskirts of Rome to report on a work of performance art, in which the artist flings her naked body at a stone pillar supporting one of the ancient aqueducts. We can tell by Jep’s expression as he lounges on the grass surveying the show — and by the cruelly probing questions he later puts to the artist — that he has seen this kind of display before. Having immersed himself in the parties and palaces of Rome nothing is new to his eyes, and therefore he can make nothing new. The city is both muse and siren, singing him to distraction and then to ennui.
This particular form of writer’s block is a familiar one. Just as a doctoral candidate is required to justify their thesis as an original contribution to their field of study, so any novelist, or journalist, or cultural critic worth their salt has an obligation to ensure that their work earns its place as a singular addition to the culture. But this kind of obligation requires a Sisyphean commitment that is itself a diversion from the essential task of creation. To contribute to a field one must immerse oneself in its present and its past. But this immersion often feels like drowning, as the torrent of information washes away one’s ability to attain the calm and the perspective that can be necessary to the creation of good works.
Although Jep seems to lead an internet-free existence, for writers in the age of digital publishing this problem stings acutely. The sheer quantity and pace of engagement required to stay au courant in one’s vocation can feel like a metastasising cancer spread over one’s ability to be productive. Some even might argue that digital culture itself is a distraction; it’s forms essentially shallow. But it’s a fallacy to believe that it’s engagement with the new (the untested, the trivial) that is the problem; that one should trade Mamamia for Medea. Engagement with the past can be equally inhibiting, as The Great Beauty shows.
Jep’s dilemma reminded me of Nietzsche’s ‘On the Use and Abuse of History for Life’, from Untimely Meditations. In this essay Nietzsche suggests that the key to a happy life lies in the ability to live unhistorically; to forget:
Anyone who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness and fear, will never know what happiness is, and, even worse, he will never do anything to make other people happy.
Jep cannot forget, as we see in his nostalgic yearning for the young woman who took his virginity. He dreams of returning to the beach-side summer where she seduced him; like his novel, his time with her is an achievement that he cannot forget and therefore is unable to match.
But the root of his problem may be the city itself. His apartment overlooks the Colosseum, and each morning he can awake and gaze across of a vision of epoch-spanning history, before which his own present circumstances pale in interest. Rome itself is the obstacle to his creativity. In the Eternal City history is always present; nothing is forgotten and nothing can be new. Jep loses himself, as Nietzsche would say, in ‘this stream of becoming’.
The film closes with a stately epilogue, as the credits roll over a lengthy shot taken by a camera drifting down a river through Rome. The final weight of Jep’s journey on his state of mind is, perhaps, ambiguous. He might have found his crest of the moment, far above the river’s flow, or he might be carried downstream.
James Robert Douglas is a writer and cultural critic in Melbourne. His work has been published in The Big Issue, Junkee, Meanjin, and Screen Machine.