“To this question, as kids, my friends always gave the same answer. “Pussy.” Whereas I answered, “the smell of old people’s houses”. The question was: “What do you like most, really, in life?” I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.“
The Great Beauty is a 2013 film co-written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. The protagonist is 65-year-old Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a largely nocturnal critic and journalist, a womanizer and intellectual famous for his lavish parties and for a single book, The Human Apparatus, published in his youth. He has lived in Rome since the age of 26, when he arrived from Naples with the intention of becoming the sort of man who not only got invited to parties, but who had “the power to make a party a failure“.
After celebrating his 65th birthday Jep has something of an existential crisis, deepened when he discovers his fleeting first love, Elisa, has died. When a guest at one of his soirees dismisses The Human Apparatus as a “novelette”, he embarks on a devastating take-down, which includes the killer phrase, “we’re all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little … Don’t you agree?“.
The film is flooded with religious iconography, and Jep sees nuns wherever he goes, while at the same time beginning a relationship with a middle-aged stripper (that eternal madonna/whore dichotomy!). He begins weeping openly at funerals, which he hitherto seems to have valued more for their performative aspect than as an opportunity to pay his respects.
By the end I had entirely lost track of what was happening, as Jep dined with an eminent cardinal, reputed to be the best exorcist in Europe and tipped for the papacy, and an ancient toothless nun, so old and wrinkled, she looked like she’d been whittled from wood. He flaneured around Rome, and there were signs that he might be experiencing a late evaporation of his writer’s block.
It didn’t really matter that I lost the plot a bit: the well-preserved (well not that well-preserved it turns out, he was 54 playing 65!), vulpine Servillo was never less than compelling, I loved the choral, high church mixed with electro-pop soundtrack, the Fellini-esque cinematography was ravishing, as were the beautiful scenes of lavish interiors and the architecture of Rome. And the overblown, euro-trashy party scenes! They are one of the best things about this movie, and outclass even The Great Gatsby in terms of louche degradation and bizarre extended dance scenes. As The New Yorker wrote at the time of the film’s release: “You could set “The Great Beauty” in America, but only if Harper Lee had spent her evenings at Studio 54.”
“This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the noise and the blah, blah, blah. Silence and sentiment. Excitement and fear. The spare, unsteady splashes of beauty. “