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This article was written on 01 Jan 2014, and is filled under Film & TV.

“La Grande Bellezza”: “. . . a tattered life”

Movie still from Google Images

Movie still from Google Images

“La Grande Bellezza,” a current first-run Roman extravaganza by Paolo Sorrentino, is beautifully filmed, assembled, paced and choreographed. A loose narrative and rhizome of characters centering on journalist and high-society icon Jep Gambardella twists and branches outward within the setting of Rome—its picturesque museums and monuments as well as its placement along the Tiber and its nest amid the seven hills. In the company of Jep and friends, we are afforded after-hours glimpses of Rome’s most cherished museums and public sites—as would be accessible only to the highest strata of Roman society. It was to the high-life and this particular social caste that Jep dedicated himself upon his arrival, at age 26, in the Eternal City. His Existentialism-inspired first and only novel, “The Human Apparatus,” had already launched him as a celebrity. The novel, as various characters remind us, is still in print and remains an item for discussion.

During the film’s second sequence,, Jep is celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday. One of three elaborate party-scenes encompassed by the film, Jep’s momentous celebration is an extended throb of techno-rock in different musical genres, a battle of the party bands (one in Marimba costume), a Fellini-spectacle of the entire cast united in a scripted dance, “la Carina.” This prodigious clearing of the audience’s visual field, ear-canals, (and possibly nostrils) accomplished, the film launches on a Janus-shaped development carrying it through to the last frame. The enhanced wisdom and forthrightness accruing to Jep at sixty-five plays an exquisite counterpoint to the overarching sense of historical fatality, loss, and unrealized yearning indistinguishable both from Rome and indissolubly linked to one’s latter efforts to participate actively in the reproductive cycle. Jep finds evidence of pervasive approaching death all around him: immersed in the choral sacred music framing the film aurally, a tourist collapses during the film’s lead-sequence; Andrea, disconsolate son of Viola Bartoli, one of Jep’s longstanding society friends, plows his car into a Roman wall at full speed; Ramona, an impressive stripper at age 42, who has a fling with Jep, dies of unspecified medical causes before it’s all over.

Most significantly in this vein, Jep is confronted early on by Alfredo Marti. The two are strangers.  Alfredo divulges the news that his wife Elisa has passed. Jep hasn’t seen her since 1970, but in posthumously reading her diaries, Alfredo has discovered that the former was the love of her life. We see a flashback to Jep’s truly memorable, of a gorgeous summer evening on a coastal island, sexual initiation. In a conspicuous display of what I would call the current “Euro-sensitivity,” one pervading the French as well as Italian cinemas–the demonstrated savoir-faire to master and even thrive amid life’s most demanding and exasperating complexities, the two men in Elisa’s life–before the majesty of death, as it were—collapse in tears and embrace.

Yet it is precisely in the face of this heavy tapestry of fatality that Jep reclaims his critical license to a trenchant and unrestrained commentary, on people and situations near and dear to him as on ideas and monuments. AND he clears enough mental clutter to contemplate the long-awaited follow-up to his debut novel; to re-enter the virtual space of playful invention after his social commitments and considerations, as they invariably do, sidelined this all-out, concentration-sensitive endeavor.

In the intervening years, Jep has become a high-profile journalist at a magazine of celebrity and culture. His inner circle of friends, including his editor Dandina, meets periodically on his balcony, overlooking the Coliseum, to deliberate. It is this pick-up team, mostly of old friends but with a recent acquaintance or two, that generates the narrative subplots whose vitality matches the film’s gorgeous rock’n sacred music soundtrack and over-the-top travelogue cinematography.

Among these cronies are Romano, a playwright feeling his years on the dating front, who retires to his small town after four decades of striving on the Roman scene; and Orietta, “una rica” from Milano, with whom Jep shares an unsatisfying one-night stand. More significant is Stefania, fellow novelist and mother of four, whom Jep, in a display of his newfound critical franchise, memorably savages in retaliation for her judgmental attitude in conversation. Not only was Stefania a well-known fixture in the university bathroom stalls during her days as s student. Her novels appear through the good offices of a former lover, an official of the Italian Communist Party. And, the spouse, Eusebio, on whom she prides herself, can’t keep his hands off of one Giordano. Yet the film’s true mettle and devotion to complexity and healing over time, comes out in the sequel to this Proustian social put-down, one worthy of Mme Verdurin. At a subsequent wedding party in the Tebaldi Gardens, Jep and Stefania dance together and muse how it could have been that they never slept together.

More importantly, the experience of seeing this film is, to the viewer of a certain age, being suddenly transported back into the virtual domain of Fellini’s talismanic classics. “La Grande Bellezza” is a tangible projection of where Fellini’s Guido would have ended up had “8 ½” continued, as a time-lapse cinematic epic, past the first decade of the 21st century. In this sense it illustrates not only the elasticity of cinema as an art form that can establish place, time, ambiance, and mood, but as a virtual medium whose strings and other continuities persist even in the face of profound historical, cognitive, and tele-technic change. Taking off on the apocalyptic ending of Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” the cast of “8 ½” ends the film in a whimsical tarantella on the beach where the production of Guido’s sci-fi movie has ground to a halt. In every respect, this is in sharp contrast to the exhibitionistic disco revelry that “La Grande Bellezza’s” cocaine-fueled parties reenact. Yet the scene continues, by virtue of a trans-generational digital splice: the idea is to assemble the entire cast, to detach it from narrative development, and visually to revel in the diversity of its moves, its physical idiosyncrasies, its plurality of sexual characteristics. As “I Clowns” made explicit, assembling a physically diverse cast and choreographing it into a story was for Fellini always tantamount to a circus. Paulo Sorrentino manages to transport Fellini’s circus out of its tent and into the palazzi and recreation venues of Rome’s contemporary 1 %–where it remains, however, a circus.

A celebrity journalist on a par with Jep. “La Dolce Vita’s” Marcello wandered the Via Veneto for stories and his own sensation, a flock of paparazzi in tow. A long central sequence pursues Jep during a late-night meander down what may well be the same artery. He takes in the solitary guests whose onus it is to close out the cafés that night; in a moment of enchantment. He momentarily crosses the path either of a very real Fanny Ardent (thanks, Daniel Szmulewicz!!), looking as glamorous and stately as ever. “Fanny Ardent,” the character, acquires, through this walk-on, the status of a living splice looping together scenes of cine-invention separated by half a century. In his ongoing quest for le temps retrouvé, Jep pauses to revisit the bordello of his youth. The proprietor asks him to look after Ramona, his daughter, whose “senior” strip-tease has already enticed him.

Yet if any transcendental signifier presides over this film, it is the Eternal City itself. Toni Servillo’s face, as Anthony Lane acutely observes in his 11/25/13 review in The New Yorker, is the wonderfully elastic, expressive display-screen or meter to the City’s multiple meanings. “La Grande Bellezza,” in recording the synoptic “symphony” of Italian culture’s hub, returns more often to the Fellini of “Giulietta degli Spiriti” than to any of his signature features. “La Grande Bellezza,” even where it satirizes the Church’s luminaries and its saints, sets out in the mood of religious mystery and ecstasy that “Giulietta” had established. (Cardinal Bellucci’s public discourse is that of a TV chef; the ascetic Sister Maria had nonetheless, in her prior emanation, read Jep’s novel.) The soundtrack and the glimpses we get of nuns of different orders cloistered within their convents recall the religious school-pageant brusquely interrupted by Giulietta’s agnostic father. As a young girl, she is just being lifted into the stage-heavens to sublime sound-effects as this happens. A long scene in which a new-age doctor mechanically administers the same injection (at 700 Euros a pop!) to a salon of patients suffering from different maladies reactivates a yoga séance to which the mature Guilietta, with her characteristic receptiveness, accompanies her friends.

What matters here is that cinema’s virtual environment rolls with the punches; it flexes with radical historical change at the subliminal level of socio-political and technological Prevailing Operating Systems. But it does not lose its fascination. Its radical absorptive potential does not falter. Jep Gambardella may be a far cry from Fellini’s Mastroianni, in his ascendancy as “Marcello” and “Guido.” Jep is, rather, a played out boulevardier, who has survived into a regime of multi-national, post-global corporatism. His second novel will have to be rather extraordinary if he is to avoid the fate confronting him: an “always-already” has-been.

Yet Jep is also our assurance that in exceptionally vivid dimensions, Fellini’s virtual environment persists, as captivating as it was during the heyday of its first-run exposure. Cinema may demarcate a make-believe world. The prospects for its characters are surely fragile. Yet the feedback loops of recursion, simulation, and reiteration in which they circulate and morph flex—radically if need be—before they break.

How could this be? Toward the end of “La Grande Bellezza,” Jep runs into his acquaintance Arturo, just as the latter is rehearsing his “vanishing giraffe trick.” Sure enough, from one moment to the next, a living giraffe, as virtual in its existence as our fleeting glimpse of “Fanny Ardant” has been “real,” manages to vanish from the spectacle. “It’s only a trick!” Arturo reassures us, explaining away any discomfiture the film’s liberties with simulation may occasion. As this captivating film draws to its conclusion, the refrain passes from one character to the next. The scene of virtual trickery is the only location where Jep’s second novel, the only one, will ever begin. The trick drawing us back into the world of Fellini’s enchantment by way of a grand recursion of fifty years’ duration is the labyrinth composed of a single line at the conclusion of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Death and the Compass.” It is an opening that configures the entire universe of cinema into one “strange loop,” in constant fluctuation between the levels of its comprehension and interpretation.

By now, I’m something of an old boulevardier myself. I found it utterly enchanting that “La Grande Bellezza” could beam me back to such Center City Philly boîtes as the Trans-Lux and the World, where the discovery of Fellini changed my personal world forever.

–Henry Sussman

2 Comments

  1. Daniel Szmulewicz
    March 8, 2014

    Fanny Ardant, my friend. Not Candice Bergen.
    Thank you for the review. I enjoyed it.

    • Henry Sussman
      March 13, 2014

      Thanks so much, Daniel!
      With the utterly unexpected & inconceivable passing of Helen Tartar, it’s taken me this long to make the crucial correction.