The Art Conundrum, with a Capital C
La Grande Bellezza
directed by Paolo Sorrentino
“Money is everywhere, but so is poetry. What we lack are the poets.” – Federico Fellini
Does beauty inspire us to achieve great heights, or is it simply overwhelming? This, I believe, is the question of La Grande Bellezza, the latest offering from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. Thankfully, it is a question Sorrentino, the most exciting filmmaker to emerge out of Italy in the last decade, poses without the ambition of offering a definitive answer. La Grande Bellezza, therefore, comes quite close to asking the eternal question: ‘is Art supposed to serve a purpose or is it actualized only when it is pursued for its own sake?’ A native of Naples, Sorrentino’s cinematic love-letter aptly elects Rome as the site in which this paradox is manifest. It is clear from the opening scene, however, in which a Japanese tourist suffers a stroke as he takes a panoramic photo of the Holy City from the Gianicolo hill, that the uniqueness of Rome is going to be both revered and parodied in the film as “croce e delizia” (‘burden and delight’ as the Italians often define mixed blessings).
The narrative of the film is loose—as it should be given that the inspiration here is the work of Federico Fellini—but focuses on Jep Gambardella, a once-upon-a-time influential novelist played by Sorrentino’s muse, actor Toni Servillo. Gambardella free-lances as a journalist every now and then, but most of the time simply enjoys his attic apartment across the street from the Colisseum, hosting rooftop parties to entertain his socialite peers, when a series of events lead him to wrestle with “the half-baked idea of going back to writing novels.” Sorrentino’s lead character is situated precisely at the intersection between the protagonists of Fellini’s 1960 La Dolce Vita and 1964 8½. Both of those iconic characters were played by Marcello Mastroianni; the first followed a journalist immersed in the social life spawned by Italy’s Economic Miracle, while the second semi-autobiographically recounted the creative block of an internationally acclaimed ‘art-film’ director.
When the religious music that accompanies Jep’s meditating strolls into the night and the break of dawn is abruptly interrupted by bursts of the techno-dance that is the soundtrack to the aging socialites’ cocaine-fuelled antics, we may think that Sorrentino’s grotesque gaze on this strata of the Roman population is a straightforward metaphor for the moral decay of Italy in the Silvio Berlusconi age. This is only partially true. Their sinful abandonment is eventually revealed to be the consequence of disillusionment, rather than evidence of narcissism. “We recognize our phoniness,” Jep explains, “so we end up talking about frivolous things, gossip, in order not to be confronted with our own abjectness.”
Sorrentino’s interest in the problematic relationship between ethics and aesthetics is revealed in a scene where Jep interviews performance-artist Talia Concept (Anita Kravos)—a woman who dyes and shaves her pubic hair so to display a hammer and sickle above her genitalia and whose artwork consists of running naked on a platform made to look like a motorway and head-butting an Etruscan aqueduct. Jep openly scorns her clumsy attempts and vague answers when asked about her process and artistic inspiration. Similarly, Jep ridicules his friend Stefania (Galatea Renzi)—a former Leftist intellectual who now enjoys an affluent lifestyle thanks to her involvement in the production of the television reality show ‘Girl Farm’—for boasting of her socially engaged literary accomplishments in the 1970s, and her current responsibilities as “mother and woman.” Her books, Jep explains, were poorly written and printed for no merit other than her being the mistress of the Party leader, while her children’s education is carried out by butlers and maids. The summation of these two scenes makes it clear that Jep (and Sorrentino with him) is navigating the tension between the mystification of art that reduction to a statement of purpose inevitably entails, and the equally inevitable void created by the pursuit of art for art’s sake alone.
Is the film’s point of view, therefore, nihilistic? Not necessarily. Jep originally came to Rome to discover “la Grande Bellezza,” or in other words, to find a muse to replace the loss of his first love, Elisa. Instead, he discovers the spiritual emptiness of Rome’s vortex of pleasure and mundanity. “Flaubert had the ambition of writing a novel about nothingness,” Jep explains, “and did not manage. How could I?” Following a series of episodic events—friendship, loss, grief and spiritual awakening—that reignite in him the memory of Elisa and inspire him to escape Rome, Jep comes to the realization that “those rare, inconstant glimpses of beauty… and then the disgraced squalor and miserable man… everything that is buried under the blanket of embarrassment for being in the world” are nevertheless worth being recounted in a new work. Jep manages to transcend the artificial, but paralyzing dualism between socially-responsible creativity and pure aestheticism in the awareness that art “after all, is only a trick.” This does not diminish the importance of art, but is actually the awareness that sets in motion the playfulness art feeds upon.
Jep Gambardella, doing what he does
This realization—very close to the way in which Fellini resolved Guido Anselmi’s creative block in 81/2—is foretold by a magician encountered during one of Jep’s nocturnal strolls. Awareness of La Grande Bellezza’s frequent references to Fellini’s films, however, may not keep the viewer from feeling disoriented at the sight of a giraffe the magician keeps for his illusions. The appearance of the gaudy, computer-generated animal in this scene clashes with the impeccable photography of Rome that characterizes the majority of the film. With this clash, however, Sorrentino makes us aware that Jep’s epiphany (“it’s just a trick”) is the very same heexperienced in the risky process of making a film with the ambition of appropriating both the legacies of Fellini and the city of Rome.
What is most troubling about this trick, however, is not the creature’s ‘unrealness’, but the fact that Sorrentino repeats this manufactured wonder in a second CGI-enhanced scene near the end of the film, in which, following another bacchanalia, Jep discovers a flock (or flamboyance) of flamingos resting on his balcony. The repetition is unnecessary, and represents the major defect of the film. The two ‘tricks’ that result in Jep’s aesthetic realization bookend a chapter of the narrative concerning the distinction between religion (embodied by a Cardinal soon to become Pope who only dispenses wisdom of the culinary type) and spirituality (represented by a Mother Theresa-like figure visiting Rome). These scenes have their clever moments, but ultimately feel too long and mirrors too closely the way in which the purpose/aestheticism dualism of Art is dealt with in the rest of the film.
In the tradition of the best Italian filmmaking of the 1960s (both the ‘art-films’ by Fellini and the ‘comedy, Italian style’ genre), Sorrentino masterfully deploys character actors to populate Rome and embody the absurdities of modern life. A scene in which Roman celebrities, aristocrats and even nuns queue in the anteroom of a marble palace, awaiting their number to be called so that they can be rejuvenated with botox by a surgeon/guru (here the reference is to a scene in Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette), is the most accomplished vignette of this type in the film. It is no wonder that Sorrentino gets a great performance out of Roman comedian Carlo Verdone—who, apart from few missteps, is an accomplished director in his own right—since he has been one of Italian cinema’s best kept secrets for the last thirty years. The performances the director charms out of Sabrina Ferilli (Ramona) and Carlo Buccirosso (Lello Cava), who are often cast in Italy’s toilet humor Christmas comedies known as cinepanettoni, are surprisingly outstanding.
Carlo Buccirosso and Toni Servillo
One may ask if, concerned as it is with questioning the source and nature of art, the film is therefore out of touch with the current Italian socio-economic crisis. The very choice of social class at the center of its narrative, the intellectual aristocracy, seemingly reinforces this impression. However, as much as contemplating the possibility of serving a social purpose through art is an endeavor that reflects Sorrentino’s goal of offering a text with universal resonance, it is also an act that appropriately mirrors the present morale of the country. It can be said that the first decade of the new millennium was characterized by the attempts on the part of the Left of Italy’s cultural industry to attack frontally the Berlusconi-age society. Examples of this include Sabina Guzzanti’s j’accuse documentaries Viva Zapatero!, from 2005, and 2010’s Draquila.
The effectiveness of social critique in the cultural realm is a question that has been circulating in Italy on a subterranean level, and it is a theme that resonates with the sense of resignation currently afflicting a country that has repeatedly failed to elect a majoritarian government, even when the Berlusconi sex scandals were added to his certified financial corruption. The meta-cinematic reflection on Berlusconi’s Italy by Leftist director Nanni Moretti, 2006’s Il Caimano, foreshadowed the issue of how the tragically entertaining figure of the former Prime Minister problematized the notion of socially critical filmmaking. Similarly, the mockumentary sitcom Boris, whichaired on Fox Italia between 2007 and 2010, and the film it spawned in 2011, Boris il Film, asked the question of how a social reality that has become ridiculous beyond belief can be further satirized and spectacularized in fiction (Sorrentino appropriately appeared as himself in a third season cameo). Through the mediation of this tradition, Italy’s current crisis is bound with the artistic dilemma at the core of La Grande Bellezza.
Viewers who expect that Italy’s Academy Award candidate picture for the Best Foreign Film should engage with the country’s current state of social, political and financial disarray in a very explicit and direct fashion will, therefore, be disappointed by La Grande Bellezza. Those, on the other hand, who are seeking for a worthy heir to Fellini’s visionary and spiritually engaged cinema may find it too derivative. But, as Jep’s voice-over reminds us, all art is a somewhat derivative play of imitation, and if the overt influence of Stanley Kubrick did not undermine the artistic accomplishments achieved by Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, why should Sorrentino’s film be penalized for its homage to Fellini’s cinematic genius?
Rome, the Eternal City
At the conclusion of La Grande Bellezza, Sorrentino frees Rome from the ‘burden and delight’ signification that the city was invested with throughout the narrative of Jep’s creative struggle. Here, as the credits roll across the screen, he shows us Rome as bare as it can be shown, in a long-take shot taken from a ferry that runs on the Tiber river and under its ancient bridges. Reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower sequence in the opening of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, this is the Eternal City without added stylization, without satirical deformation, with no attempt to master it by ‘taking it all in’ from a vantage point, and no formalist reverence for its primacy among civilization’s accomplishments. Just Rome: its people, its tourists, its buildings, its light and its dirt. In the end, Sorrentino puts aside the ‘whys’ and the ‘why nots’, and leaves the audience with the simple recording of a beautiful thing, arguably the most beautiful thing… is it not enough?