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Cities in Cinema 1: Le grande bellezza

By John P. Houghton.

Le grande bellezza, Paolo Sorrentino, 2013

“The best people in Rome are the tourists” Jep Gambardella sighs through the perma-haze of cigarette smoke. With these words, the hero of Le grande bellezza condemns his city and thereby himself.

Despite the ‘great beauty’ of the title, Rome has become a place of criminality, sexual exploitation and superficiality. Just as its son Jep, an ageing art critic of once great taste and eloquence, has become a jaded old cynic, concerned only with social status and fleeting sensual satisfaction.

Can the soul of the man and of the city be saved?

That is the question at the heart of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 Academy Award winner for best foreign language feature. We follow Jep on an epic emotional journey as he is forced to acknowledge the spiritual vacuum that has left him feeling ultimately dissatisfied, despite his wealth and fame.

What elevates Le grande bellezza beyond the familiar cinematic trope of middle-aged man seeks meaning in life is the fundamental connection that director Paolo Sorrentino forges between the man and the city.

At the start of the film, the emptiness and corruption that Jep feels within himself, he also sees in the city he loves. When he looks at her, he no longer sees beauty, but the terrifying reflection of an abyss.

The sacred and the profane

The ten-minute opening sequence of the film establishes this central existential concern. The film starts at the Janiculum hill overlooking Rome, with tourists admiring its imperial busts and baroque architecture, to the accompaniment of haunting choral song.

This is the face that Rome presents to the world: a place of antique and sacred beauty. Before it was a tourist attraction, the Janiculum was home to the cult of Janus, the two-faced God.

The two-faced nature of modern Rome is exposed by the jarring jump cut from the ancient hill to the orgiastic scenes of a rooftop party hosted by our hero. With the Eurotrash Far l’amore providing the soundtrack, this is the face of Rome it hides from the world: the squalid profanity of drunken bunga bunga parties.

The party marks Jep’s 65th birthday but, despite the fixed smile and winks to admiring female guests, the man is in no mood to celebrate. Reaching this older age, he has decided to waste no more time on things he no longer wants to do. This is the start of his spiritual peregrination.

This is my life, and it is nothing”.

Jep has attained all he can professionally and socially. He can get interviews with the biggest names in the art world and bestrides Rome’s social scene as “the King of the high life”. He can end a party simply by leaving early and destroy an artistic reputation with a waspish review.

Every aspect of his life is a performance. Even the funeral of a friend’s young son is an opportunity for him to demonstrate his social grace and dramatic timing.

Yet this lifetime of gander gossiping and peacock posturing has left him bereft. During another party at his home, much later in the film, he watches his guests snort cocaine and form drunken conga lines before confiding to his housekeeper: “this is my life, and it is nothing”.

So Jep spends more and more time walking the streets of Rome, often at night. Does the city offer him solace and spiritual succour? Not quite.

“Rome has really disappointed me”.

It is not Jep who speaks these words, but Romano, Jep’s friend and agent and the one true romantic in the film. Romano is of a similar age to Jep but, unlike his client, is still trying to write, to create, to find and forge things of beauty. Romano’s departure from the city confirms Jep’s fear that the metropolis is as corrupted as he is.

During one night-time walk through the city, Jep is almost hit by the car. As it drives away, he glimpses in the back an attractive young man, in an apparently drugged and helpless state. There is a heavy implication that she is being used as a prostitute, and is perhaps the victim of trafficking.

The extended walking sequence in which this incident takes place is the most powerful movement of the entire film. The pacing, the switches between glimpses of modern Rome and Jep’s reactions, such as the restaurant window scene, and the accompanying music – Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 – loads the sequence with pregnant emotion.

As a brief aside, during his nocturnal walks, Jep bumps into the actress Fanny Ardant, star of Paris Je T’aime, another semi-ironically named film about life and love in an old and beautiful city. Is this Sorrentino having a little meta-textual fun?

Fallen and falling woman

The moment that captures Jep’s point of greatest alarm at Rome’s fall from grace happens shortly after the sequence described above. Our hero is at illicit cosmetic surgery session. He is waiting amongst the regulars, ageing but vain men and women like him, when he witnesses a young nun pay thousands of Euros for an injection of Botox.

Up to this point, the nuns in the city, in their white garments, and always surrounded by children, had represented a remaining purity that Jep assumed could still be found at the literal and metaphorical heart of the city. Their piety and penance seemed to give the rest of the population a bit of leeway. This unwanted late-night vision of innocence spoiled by artificiality hits both the audience and our hero with real weight.

It is another apparently fallen woman who leads Jep toward potential salvation. Ramona is introduced as an ageing stripper still convinced she can make it as a model. Over time, they fall in love, the first time Jep has as an adult despite a life of conquests. Rather than end on a romantic note, Ramona suddenly dies.

The cause is left very vague, with only a cryptic allusion issued from what turns out to be her deathbed. Though some have argued that she is a personification of Rome and dies as a result of self-pollution as she tries to recapture former glories.

Reaching the end of the film, the third figure in the trinity of female characters who might save Jep is that of ‘the Saint’. Aged 104 and devoted to a strict life of poverty and suffering, the Saint is a character of almost mythic status. Religious leaders flock from around the world to touch her and absorb some of her apparent spiritual power.

Through her seemingly divine intervention, the last skyline shot we have of Rome is of the city at dawn, with migrating flamingos – summoned and then sent on their way by the Saint – flying like angels across the auroral sky.

As the Saint falls to her knees to suffer the anchorite pain of climbing dozens of stone steps, we see Jep re-visit his youth, a time of innocence, and deliver a moving soliloquy on the nature of humanity and beauty.

There is no neat resolution, but a clear suggestion that realisation has at last been achieved. Man and city at last have a chance of saving their soul.

John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities. He tweets at @metlines 

‘Cities in Cinema’ as a 3:AM column began in 2009 with John’s consideration of Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City (here)

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 23rd, 2017.