Upon watching La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013) by Paolo Sorrentino, the first two surfacing feelings are: what a stunning piece of work, and what a desperate country Italy has become. The film is feast for the senses, a synaesthetic experience of visual images, words, and music that cannot shade, but rather highlights, the desolation of the world represented.

Much has been written about the film’s references to Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1959), 8 & ½ (1963), and Roma (1972), to Ettore Scola’s La terrazza (1980) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte (1961). As much as those parallels are abused – and often detrimental to Sorrentino’s authorship – they are also inescapable, beginning with its topical setting and its ambiguous socialite hero Jep Gambardella. In La dolce vita, the youth emanating from Marcello Mastroianni’s character, Marcello, a tabloid reporter aspiring to a literary career, has its foil in Toni Servillo’s Jep, a late-middle-aged writer turned journalist. This disenchanted intellectual and womanizer is surrounded by an eclectic mix of friends: a wealthy businessman and his wife, a leftist intellectual, an aristocratic lady, a beautiful acquaintance he sleeps with (without enjoying it much), a depressed and lonely playwright, and his sharp boss, dwarf Dadina (Giovanna Villoresi), the publisher of the influential art journal he writes for. A bigger crowd encircles this original group, forming an indistinct mass during the wild parties that punctuate the narrative.

The film opens at the Janiculum, a terraced-square overlooking the city, where a Japanese tourist is taking a picture, gets suddenly overwhelmed by the spectacular sight, and dies from a heart attack. Is the filmmaker making fun of the compulsive recording of visual memories, of the Stendhal syndrome that plunges sensitive tourists into a delusional, though temporary state, or is his a tragically funny way to set the tone of the movie? This perplexing opening shot smoothly transitions to one inside the Fountain of Acqua Paola nearby, where a female choir is singing heavenly church music. Then a cut abruptly terminates the quiet and beautiful symmetry of the scene, as we are now in the midst of a very loud, very smashed, very drunk party. As the director explains, “I wanted to emphasize the sense of emptiness to which we are irremediably attracted. Parties are the epitome of this void, they’re beautiful but senseless” (1). The pulsating techno music is deafening, almost a cruel opposite to the inspiring music of the female singers. Jep is finally introduced, apparently enjoying himself, but with a funny smirk on his face (“I didn’t just want to take part in the parties, I wanted to have the power to ruin them”, he will shortly tell the audience). Some of his closest friends are also revealed through quick, lugubrious brushes, as the tilts and whirling shots are chopped by the frantic editing that the music’s beat dictates.

This pattern, with a few variations, will be repeated throughout the whole picture. Nothing much happens, really, but at the same time a lot happens, in terms of virtuoso formal meanderings and thematic variations.  The director applies the Fellinian principle of accumulation, adding meanings rather than facts, inserting new characters while abandoning familiar ones, positing dichotomies and juxtapositions that will be progressively diluted into one magmatic fresco. Sorrentino claims that his film is not “about” Rome, but that it encompasses it. It is, mostly, about human frailty and alienation – from oneself and from others – and it is about a country’s malaise. It is, lastly, about the means used to convey this malaise: art, music, personal and collective memory, friendship, and love. Death looks on, ready to wipe out humans and leave the immemorial beauty (or ugliness) of things.

Like Sorrentino himself, Jep is an outsider, a Neapolitan, who carries with him inborn politeness and flair, and a wry tongue. In the original Italian version, his seamless alternating between the educated Italian speech and the slight Neapolitan inflection –difficult to catch for a non-native viewer – reveals both the status of his interlocutor, and the true nature of his words and intentions. For instance, the Filipino housekeeper who presides over his beautiful apartment overlooking the Coliseum is addressed with an affectionate “farabutta” (rascal), to which she giggles and replies with the same epithet. Similarly, most of Jep’s voice-over monologues resonate with a marked literary, even poetic quality, whereas in the colloquial spoken language his dry irony prevails (2). It is now common knowledge that narratives frame ambiguity and help us make sense of what’s around us, as Sorrentino confirms: “Words provide meaning and order to a world that is objectively chaotic and meaningless.” Accordingly, the diegesis of The Great Beauty is then “framed” by words: at the beginning, right after the opening credits, a quote by Céline predisposes the viewer to the imaginary journey of life (3); at the end, Jep’s own words, a sign of his restored literary inspiration, provide the only possible antidote against the fatigue of the present.

Moreover, the same split of high or standard speech and vernacular reflects the multiple dichotomies informing the film: the music (church music and techno or pop music), the characters (cultured and ignorant, young and old, upper-class and lower-class), interior design (the décor of the aristocratic palaces and the contemporary furniture of the rich and trendy), art  (Renaissance paintings and Roman statues vs. performance art and action-painting), camerawork (the sweeping tracking and panning shots interspersed with jittery montage sequences). One is tempted to read the juxtaposition of these contrasting images and sounds as a technique that emphasizes – not so subtly – the beauty of all that is “old”, and casts a negative light, or even ridicule, on all that is “new”, seemingly purporting a conservative authorial discourse (one of the recurring critiques directed at Sorrentino’s cinema in Italy). In fact, the contiguity of opposites, with its implicit openness, its moral and aesthetic challenges, is what makes the film a powerful, emotionally and intellectually stimulating cinematic experience. It does not want to provide definite answers or role models, and cannot be labelled “political” in the revived tradition of a specific socially-committed genre, but it strikes at the heart of a culture that needs to look at itself in the mirror as the necessary premise for change.

Sorrentino’s human species, with all their bizarre peculiarities and existential ennui, are true and real. In this sense, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s insightful remarks on La dolce vita’s characters can easily apply to those in The Great Beauty:

Observe. There is not a sad character who moves us to compassion. For everyone, everything is going fine, even if it is going terribly. Everyone is full of energy in managing to survive, even if burdened by death and insensitivity. I have never seen a film in which all the characters are so full of the joy of being. Even the sorrowful events, the tragedies, take shape as phenomena charged with vitality, like spectacles. (4)

Jep the flâneur, author of one celebrated novel, The Human Apparatus, is the last representative of a long gallery of disenchanted, ageing male characters that feature in Sorrentino’s cinema:  Antonio (Andrea Renzi) and his doppelgänger Tony Pisapia (Toni Servillo) in L’uomo in piu (One Man Up, 2001), Titta di Girolamo (Toni Servillo), the Mafia accountant in Le consequenze dell’amore (The Consequences of Love, 2004), the repulsive loan shark Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo) in L’amico di famiglia (The Family Friend, 2006), Cheyenne (Sean Penn), the ex punk-rock star turned Nazi-hunter in This Must Be the Place (2011). All of them seem to share a similar narrative arc, their life on screen being already shaped by disillusionments and defeats. It’s towards the end that they suddenly redeem their mediocrity, either through moral epiphany or self-destruction.  The only exception is, in Il divo (2008), the character of Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo), the most powerful and shady protagonist of the Italian political scene for over forty years. For him, the ending without redemption takes the form of public oblivion and loss of power, his sharp intellectual vitality eroded by decrepitude (the real Andreotti died in 2013, aged 94).

Jep the flâneur (Tony Servillo)

Jep the flâneur (Tony Servillo)

All of Sorrentino’s films also display another common denominator: a subjective cinematic address that is consistently questioned by the director’s authorial distance from his main characters: his gaze is too erratic, his camerawork too fluid, his subjects too well sketched to be constricted in the sole perspective of the hero. Nor is the generation gap between the filmmaker and his protagonists enough to justify it (in The Great Beauty, Jep Gambardella, who comes closest to being Sorrentino’s alter-ego, has just celebrated his 65th birthday). Here the ostensible subjective cinematic address (Jep’s repeated point-of-view shots and voice-over), does not prevent other forms of interpellation – that is, outside of Jep’s perspective – but actually encourages the viewer to formulate questions that encompass and exceed Gambardella’s issues about life, memory, and our place in the world. This pervasive interpellation of viewers is all the more remarkable due to the director’s challenge to audience identification with character, as aptly described by Alex Marlowe-Mann:

Alignment is the cognitive process through which viewers are spatially and temporarily attached to characters and/or granted subjective access to their thoughts and feelings. Allegiance, on the other hand, is an emotional process […] that depends in part on the moral values and personality traits associated with a particular character and the extent to which these are compatible with those of the spectator. […] Allegiance is therefore something that the filmmaker deliberately elicits, or not, as the case may be. (5)

If the viewer’s cognitive alignment is strongly supported by a visual and audio alignment, the same is not true for allegiance: Jep is too world-weary and cynical, a squanderer of his own talent not to divert the spectator’s sympathy. This fracture, even more evident in some of the filmmaker’s previous movies, produces a destabilizing effect, as Marlowe-Mann further argues:

Sorrentino’s idiosyncratic use of character engagement thus constitutes the perfect vehicle for his narrative themes; rather than merely representing alienation, Sorrentino replicates this alienation in the viewer. (6)

The city we are watching is an imaginary Rome, breathtakingly beautiful and impassive, unscathed by its actual urban decay, its ugliness, by the corruption of a large part of its political class, and the despondency of the civic society; the camera lingers on its historical facades, bridges, squares, from the most famous sites to the most secluded ones, infusing its gaze with a magical sense of wonder.  No small achievement, considering that the Eternal City, with its unique combination of sacred and profane, laden with stratified symbolic meanings, is one of the most favourite cinematic locations. Jep as a modern Virgil takes us to sumptuous palaces inhabited by well-educated, decrepit aristocrats – some, who have lost all of their fortune, sell their name and elegant company at dinner-parties for a modest price. We watch well-known sites with new eyes, as the camera caresses the stones, the plasters, the marble through unusual angles and perspectives (like the tiny Roman temple San Pietro in Vincoli). We enter places we always longed to enter, like the Palace of the Maltese Knights, or the Palazzi Spada, Odescalchi, and Barberini (with its extraordinary La fornarina painted by Raphael), and catch a glimpse of the splendours of their marble staircases, paintings, tapestries, and other countless riches.

Ramona, Jep, and “The Clerk” visit a secret garden of one of Rome’s ancient palaces

Ramona, Jep, and “The Clerk” visit a secret garden of one of Rome’s ancient palaces

At the Roman aqueduct – which serves as the significant background in the opening shot of La dolce vita, Jep attends a  “concept” performance by a female artist he has to write about. The woman, naked but for a light white scarf wrapped around her face, a hammer and sickle shaven in her pubic hair, suddenly runs head-on against the wall (a malignant allusion, according to some critics, to Marina Abramovic.) This scene, together with Jep’s ensuing interview with artist, is one of the most hilarious moments in the entire film, combining a quasi-slapstick comedy with Jep’s indignant tirade against charlatans’ tricks passing for innovative and sophisticated art. There are two other significant, though less demeaning episodes, that show the filmmaker’s perplexed interest in contemporary art: one involves the biggest autobiographic exhibit Jep has ever seen: a photo of the same man’s face has been taken every day for 55 years. The effect is astounding, judgment suspended, as Jep’s gaze pans through the thousands of pictures neatly displayed on the walls of Villa Giulia. They reveal the irrevocable ageing, the imperceptible shifting of moods, happiness and grief of the artist as a subject, a great calm infusing a magic spell on this emotional, rather than aesthetic, experience. The second episode involving an “artist” takes place at a luxury mansion, during a party attended by the usual mix of aristocrats, rampant businessmen, decorative women and the like. After dinner the young daughter of the rich, crass host is forced to perform her action-painting in front of the guests, including some influential art critics and dealers: the girl, about 12 years old, tears rolling down her cheeks, starts splashing with both hands acrylic colours on a gigantic canvas. She moans noisily while moving in a frenzy, soon covered in paint from head to toe. This time, too, Jep leaves speechless.

The performance artist running head-on against the Roman aqueduct

The performance artist running head-on against the Roman aqueduct

Today’s art appears deliberately – or forcibly – ephemeral, in tune with the times, market-valued and prey to bloated individual egos that have given up on meaning.  In front of these two discordant depictions of art and beauty, viewers are forced to affirm that the great beauty no doubt resides in the ancient city and much less in the production of their contemporaries.

And what about the main characters? Their social masks are forever glued to their real faces, the cult of the image deforming features, botox and cocaine its faithful allies (in the sequence with the plastic surgeon, his patients from all social classes behave like religious followers). The rich and beautiful are oblivious to the rest of their fellowmen and to the state of the country, enclosed in a vicious circle of narcissistic pastimes.

If proletarian characters are lacking in the film, those who are closer to that category are the nicest people Jep interacts with: besides the Filipino maid, his friend Romano, the unsuccessful playwright, and Ramona, the mature stripper (both played by two very popular icons of Italian cinema: actor-director Carlo Verdone and Sabrina Ferilli). Thanks to them Jep can temporarily dismiss his sported cynicism, for instance when, together with Romano, he marvels at a young couple who have been kissing “for a week”. Or, when he has Ramona sleep in his bed, and in the morning tells her “It’s been beautiful not making love.” In fact, Jep is a sentimental cynic. In the superficial, kaleidoscopic milieu he chose to live, even death is glided over by the majority. When death strikes, though, it pierces Jep’s protective bubble. His slow, painful coming to terms with his failure as a writer is set in motion by the news of his first love’s death. The flashbacks of his encounter with the beautiful Elisa (Annaluisa Capasa) by the seaside invade his waking moments, his bedroom’s ceiling morphs into a deep blue sea, evoking an enchanted nostalgia. Furthermore, when Andrea (Luca Marinelli) – the young son of Viola (Pamela Villoresi), one of Jeb’s closest friends – takes his own life, Jeb, after lecturing Romona on the proper reserved demeanour to be kept during funeral services (so as not to obscure the mother’s grief), suddenly overcome by overwhelming emotion at the service, unexpectedly bursts into tears, thereby contradicting his own stated rules of propriety.

Just like La dolce vita could be renamed “La dolce morte” (“Sweet Death”), so La grande bellezza could be re-titled “La grande bruttezza” (“The Great Ugliness”). Sorrentino stated that he didn’t want to include neither politics nor TV in his film: we could say that they are not made explicit here, but they are visible just beneath the glittering surface: in the arrogance of the rich, in the dishonest speech of the radical-chic Stefania (Galatea Ranzi); in the compulsive “fun” of parties and high-society events; in the obsessive veneration of youth as a clear byproduct of the Berlusconi era; in the shots of the capsized Costa Concordia cruiser off the Tuscan coast as the unequivocal metaphor of the country’s ruin. You don’t need a drama to represent a social reality, just like political cinema does not have to be separated from comedy: “It’s a fake, insincere distinction. One of my favourite films (…) is Fellini’s Amarcord: you laugh, you think, you reflect. The great auteur film – even in the form of a 90-minute scratch – never dared downplaying comedies”(7). In this light we must read the bitterly ironic figure of Jep’s neighbour. Towards the end, Gambardella watches from his terrace as the police arrest this mysterious, disdainful, impeccably clad man. “Who are you?”, Jeb asks him, and he replies: “I’m a laborious man. One who keeps this country going, while you waste your time playing the artist and having fun with your friends. It’s thanks to me that this country keeps going, but many people did not understand it”.  We soon learn that he was one of the world’s ten most wanted fugitives.

It is only mildly surprising that Jep is seeking some kind of enlightenment from representatives of the Church, just like Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) does in 8 &1/2, and many people around the world still do. The rendering of his encounters replicates the humorous and ambivalent tone that permeates other portions of the film, with the characterization of Cardinal Bellucci serving as a perfect example. The eminent priest (played by Roberto Herlitzka), with a rumoured past as a powerful exorcist, delights in his meticulous recipe-telling at the dinner table, or playing peekaboo with guests in the park, but deftly refuses to answer any of Jep’s serious questions. The second religious figure, towards the close of the movie, is that of La Santa (Giusi Merli), a Mother Teresa-like diminutive nun. She’s the focus of an extended episode that once again blends together the sacred and the profane: her faith and charisma seem authentic, but the showy ceremony put together in her honour at the Vatican, the dinner parties she accepts to attend, make her a disconcerting and enigmatic character. La Santa opposes silence to the constant noise of Jep’s environment, and in this silence words can finally retrieve their original meaning. “Roots are important”, she says at some point, sparking a new understanding in Jeb. Now, finally, Jep’s journey is coming full circle, as the simple questions he kept asking take him back to his origins, his true self.

In Italy, The Great Beauty received a mixed critical reception, ranging from the lukewarm to the outright negative, thus confirming a sad national tradition – started long ago with Roberto Rossellini’s Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) – one that determinately neglects important domestic pictures. Only after the film enjoyed international success and won prestigious awards (including the European Critics’ Award, The Bafta, the Golden Globe, the Oscar), did audience and critics appropriate it. Just a few days after the Academy Awards ceremony, Canale 5, part of Mediaset TV network, broadcast The Great Beauty (co-produced by Medusa, the film company also belonging to Berlusconi’s media empire). The network butchered the film with a lot of commercial interruptions, as is it’s wont, thus expanding its original running time – ca 170 minutes – to a disproportionate length. No doubt this decision seriously compromised the film’s re-release in regular theatres.  Another ironic twist of destiny concerns the film’s title, which is lately being cited as a sort of mantra to invoke Italy’s resurrection. That said, how can one possibly scorn Sorrentino’s depiction of the country’s débacle? More seriously, the filmmaker is blamed for the “conceited” literariness of the screenplay (written with Umberto Contarello), for the characters’ superficiality and indifference, for the film’s formal artistry matched with an uninspiring, depressing content, for lack of clear ideological statements. Moreover, the director is guilty of “high treason” for acknowledging Fellini as a major source of inspiration, as the great Federico is surrounded by an untouchable, sacred aura (this may perhaps explain why young viewers, free from this questionable form of reverence, have responded more readily to the picture).

Probably unaware of these sterile polemical reactions to the movie, foreign critics, with a few exceptions, have been from the start much more favuorable, if not outright enthusiastic, as in Michael Atkinson’s praise for the movie: “The Great Beauty is one of the greatest films about modern social dissolution”. Curiously, though, many cinéphiles and ordinary viewers  – perhaps intimidated by the exuberance of the film and by the complexity of its signifiers – have eluded the puzzling question of the title’s meaning. Carlo Verdone has recently advanced that

Beauty is youth, when you see beauty everywhere, the sense of wonder of the best years: in nature, in sensations, in the sharing of them. This is for me the meaning of the film, particularly at the end. Today everything is made opaque by the lack of collective memory, by bad teachers who have obscured the past and live in the present without direction. There is no time left for contemplation. If the film can help us understand the world around us, we must hasten to take care of an ailing body. (8)

In a deleted scene, Jep interviews a very old, celebrated Italian director who says: “I would like to tell my viewers: What beauty, what great beauty. Respect your curiosity, favour it, don’t restrain it. But they are lazy and skeptical. Ignorant, too.” And Jep himself, finally grappling with his existential dissipation, tries to locate its cause: “I looked for the great beauty, but I could not find it”. During the last of his solitary walks through Rome, when at dawn the city looks intact and silent, he comes to realize that “Everything ends in the same way. With death. But before there was life, hidden beneath all the babbling and noise. Silence and feelings. Excitement and fear. The spare, unsteady splashes of beauty”. Following those lines, a majestic tracking shot of the Tiber’s banks, taken from a boat, concludes the picture.

No great beauty, then, but just small fragments of it, like the ironic, whimsical touch that renders every character, from the protagonist to the least rounded ones, an irresistible conflation of surprises and nuances, so fake and so real. Only inanimate things are still and muted. Beauty, it seems, lies in both.

All translations from the Italian are by the author.


  1. Sorrentino, P. “La mutazione italiana in pellicola”, La Repubblica delle idee – 3, Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso, 2013, p.13
  2. The same literary quality can be found in the film’s screenplay. Sorrentino has stated, in a number of interviews, that “working with words” is much more complex than shooting a film. His fascination with literature has produced two novels: Hanno tutti ragione (2010) and Tony Pagada e i suoi amici (2012).
  3. “Travelling is really useful, it makes your imagination work. Everything else is disappointment, effort. The journey we are given is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.
    It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things…all is invented. It is a novel, nothing other than a work of fiction. So says Littré, who is always right. In any case, we can all do the same thing. Just close your eyes, and see life on the other side.”
    Céline, L. F., Journey to the End of Night, 1932.
  4. Pasolini, P.P., “The Catholic Irrationalism of Fellini”, Translation, Introduction, and Notes by Frank and Pina Demers, Film Criticism, 1/2, Fall/Winter 1986/1987
  5. Marlow-Mann A.,  “Character Engagement and Alienation in the Cinema of Paolo Sorrentino”, 161-174, in Hope, W. (ed.), Italian Film Directors in the New Millennium, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010, p.163.
  6. i>. Ibid, 171
  7. Pagani, M., “Alla ricerca del sogno: Paolo Sorrentino in conversazione con Malcom Pagani”, Micromega, June 2011
  8. Verdone, C. , “Dalla Bellezza di Sorrentino parta la grande riscossa”, La Repubblica, March 4th, 2014.