If you’ve been holed up for a few weeks with a cold, like I have, perhaps there can be no more effective break-out than a trip down to St. Anthony Main to see La Grande Belleza, Italy’s entry into the Oscar race for best foreign film. The film takes place almost entirely in sunny Rome, with its quiet streets lined with low-rise buildings bordered by orange trees and steeped in ochre and umber, it’s tidy evergreen gardens, and its lavish parties attended by the city’s “beautiful people.” No, this is not Pasolini’s Rome, nor Rossellini’s, nor even Fellini’s, though director Sorrentino has often been compared to that master.
Anyone looking for antecedents might consider that the world of La Grand Belleza resembles Antonioni’s world, with this difference: Antonioni’s characters are full of existential angst in the face of life’s evident tedium and meaninglessness. Sorrentino’s characters, though equally attractive, wealthy, and spiritually adrift, simply want to party on.
The film follows a few a days in the life of Jep Gambardella, who, as the film begins, stands at the heart of the social scene. Well, it’s his 65th birthday, and the first fifteen minutes of the film are devoted to a party held in his honor on his terrace overlooking the Coliseum. It’s a wild, colorful, Euro-disco, bump-and-grind affair, jarring in its effect, and viewers may begin to wonder where all the ruminative scenery they saw in the trailers has been stashed.
Things quiet down soon enough (though they erupt again intermittently) as Jep wanders the streets of the city the next morning, running into friends seemingly at every turn. He attends a avant garde dramatic performance staged on the ruin of an antique monument set in a grassy field outside the city (I think I saw Roman Polanski in the audience), and later he interviews the actress, who seems also to be a fortune teller. This is the only time during the film that we see Jep do anything productive.
Yes, Jep, is a writer. As a youth he wrote a popular novel—an Italian Catcher in the Rye, perhaps—but has written nothing substantive since then. People ask him from time to time, “Why don’t you write another novel?” but he brushes such queries aside. “I’m having too much fun doing nothing,” he seems to say. Or perhaps it's just: "I really have nothing more to say."
But Jep (Toni Servillo) doesn’t seem to be having that much fun. He carries an expression on his face somewhere between flickering amusement and incipient gloom.
Two events tip the scales more serious downward.
One evening after a party, Jep brings a lovely woman from Milan home with him, and after they’ve made love, she offers to show him some photos of herself she’s posted on Facebook. “Sure, I’d love to see them,” Jep says, feigning enthusiasm. He stands out on a balcony surveying the city while she runs off to find her laptop, and makes a vow of sorts: “I will no longer agree to do things that I don’t want to do.” By the time his companion returns, he’s gone.
Jep’s world is more seriously rocked when an old friend whom he hasn’t seen in decades arrives to tell Jep that his wife has recently died. Elisa had broken off with Jep before marrying the friend, and now, decades later, the man has discovered by reading her diary that she never really stopped loving Jep. Jep’s reaction, as usual, is muted; naturally he’s more concerned about his friend’s grief than his own might-have-been. But from time to time we see dream-like flashbacks of a very young Jep, swimming off a craggy shoreline somewhere in the Mediterranean (ala Antonioni’s L’Vventura). Elisa is sitting on shore along with three other ravishing but somehow innocent-looking teenage female friends.
But it would be a mistake to suggest there is any kind of narrative thread to be found in La Grande Bellezza. For the most part the movie simply flows. Jep and a small circle of friends often sit on his terrace at night talking about nothing, and in time we get to know a few of them slightly. One, a hapless dramatist who’s never cracked the big time, finally decides to return in defeat to his home town.
“In all of Rome, you’re the only person I feel like saying goodbye to, Jep,” the man says, underscoring an important point. The success of La Grande Bellezza rides on the fact that Jep, though just as dissipated as anyone else in his crowd, in also vaguely humane and certainly well-liked.
A saintly nun with no teeth, an eleven-year-old avant garde painter, a cardinal who’s good at exorcism though what he really likes to do is cook, a forty-year-old stripper with a mysterious malady, a magician and his giraffe, a Marxist busybody, a lame man who has the keys to all the old villas and monuments in Rome. The cast sounds Fellini-esque but the tone is entirely different. The cinematography is lush, the editing slightly jumbled. Along with the parties and the Euro-disco, we have haunting scenes backed by Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Górecki, and the Kronos Quartet.