“The Great Beauty” is Rome seen through the eyes of an aging socialite and playboy (Jep Gambardella played by Toni Servillo).  Jep wrote one much lauded book in his youth and has basked in its celebrity ever since.  He is constantly asked why he never wrote another.  He eventually answers this question when the question comes from a Mother Teresa type “saint” he is supposed to be interviewing.  Hint:  the movie’s title has something to do with it.

I am very fond of this movie for the mood that it maintains throughout.  When he isn’t partying, Jep is having quiet talks with various old friends – including his housekeeper – or walking the vacant streets in the early morning, observing the little stories to be found there.  It’s a mood that is expressed in every detail of his face:  sadness, nostalgia, a little regret, wonder, curiosity, amusement, and a hint of disdain never rising to the level of disgust.  He is largely non-judgmental but is quite capable of using words to inflict maximum effect when he wants to.  Thankfully the usual “disillusioned artist” tropes are absent:  self loathing, rampant cynicism, angst, creative frustration.  He is mostly a passive, “live-and-let-live” observer who does not concern himself with trying to understand the things he witnesses and experiences.  He has seen it all.

This is a beautiful film with surprising and wonderful images.  It is both frenetic and quiet, banal and pensive, searching and aimless.  There is very little passion or sincerity but plenty of the appearance of same.  And there are many conversations – some vapid and others attempting elucidation – none achieving resolution.  Fellini meets F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The movie is about (among other things):

…unanswered questions, nuns, priests, parties, artists and would be-artists, socialites, couples and coupling, ennui, the leisure class, spectacle, artifice, faith and lack of faith, desire and lack of desire, thwarted desires, thwarted dreams, misguided causes, selfish pursuits…

This may sound like just a cynical portrayal of affluent society.  However, I believe it’s an impressionistic look through the eyes of one of its central players who, upon his 65th birthday, has become more an outside observer than an active participant.  Rome is simply the backdrop to a life of pleasure and abundance.  A life that, but for a choice made by another many years ago, might have been one of marital bliss and hum-drum domesticity.  It’s up to the viewer to judge how Jep feels about the outcome.

– Written by jbm 7/1/2018

Movie available to stream on Filmstruck or for purchase through The Criterion Collection:  https://www.criterion.com/films/28604-the-great-beauty

photo:  Criterion Collection