The Sacred and the Profane: Seeing Double in “The Great Beauty”

“The ideal way to see Rome . . . is through two pairs of eyes, one pair that knows it exceedingly well . . . and one that sees it for the first time, wide-eyed, open to life” (Federico Fellini, I, Fellini, 122).

There is both great decadence and profound ugliness in Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty. Via Janus Films.
There is both great decadence and profound ugliness in Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. Via Janus Films.

Let me say up front that I love Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, The Great Beauty, our Jan. 10 movie. I saw it once and felt compelled to see it again just days later, and I expect it will be a film that I return to often, if not on a literal screen, then on my individual mind-screen, where indelible images from Fellini flicker too. For me, watching The Great Beauty was an experience both exhilarating and mournful, stunning and repellent.

As so many critics have already remarked, Sorrentino’s film is a contemporary reworking of La Dolce Vita — like its predecessor, brimming with eccentric and extravagant images. But Sorrentino’s vision of “the sweet life” achieves an even finer balance of caustic satire and decaying beauty than did Fellini’s landmark film from 1960, in which scorn for the decadent society overshadows any allure it might have. That said, the decadence in The Great Beauty is even more grotesque and perverse than that depicted in La Dolce Vita. And, thus, to balance the profound ugliness, the beauty must indeed be great.

Whereas La Dolce Vita opens with a statue of Christ hauled by helicopter to St. Peter’s Square, the first image from The Great Beauty is the gaping muzzle of a cannon before firing. A somber tourist reads the inscription at the Independence War Memorial, “Roma o Morte,” commemorating Italian patriots. A burly man washes himself in the water of Il Fontanone; another swears to someone on his cellphone. Japanese tourists learn about the construction of the fountain from a tour guide, while a women’s choir performs a cappella in the arch above them. One tourist leaves the group, crossing the street to photograph Rome’s cityscape. After snapping his last photo, he collapses. Like Fellini’s audiences, we are left to interpret the symbols for ourselves.

The aging bon vivant Jep in The Great Beauty, via Janus Films.
The aging bon vivant Jep in The Great Beauty, via Janus Films.
The themes of the two films are similar — and familiar to art-house audiences. Modern society is a wasteland where carnality and shallowness rule. The inhabitants of the modern city are obsessed with appearance, yet lifeless, and, of course, supremely cynical. High-minded moralists — whether of the Church or politics or the arts — are poseurs, with nothing of value to offer and deserving of contempt. Given all this, how does Sorrentino surpass Fellini’s accomplishment? How does he temper the despairing vision other than with his opulent cinematography and devotional music?

Differences between the films’ protagonists may hold the answers. Both characters have been seduced by “the high life.” Marcello Rubini of La Dolce Vita (played by the incomparable Marcello Mastroianni) is a young journalist who runs with the paparazzi; Jep Gambardella from Sorrentino’s film (played flawlessly by veteran actor Toni Servillo, perhaps best known in the U.S. for his performance as a Camorra functionary in Gommorrah from 2008), is a 65-year-old celebrity journalist, whose reputation rests upon a single novel penned decades ago.

However world-weary and cynical, even mean-spirited to “friends” for their self-delusions, Jep is a more sympathetic character than Marcello. Both are indolent and joyless, but Jep possesses greater self-awareness than Marcello and reaches a sorrowful epiphany by the film’s end. In contrast, Marcello learns very little about himself or his society, though his nihilism does deepen at the end: Not only does he give up his aspirations to be a serious writer, but he abandons his sordid journalism for something he holds in even greater contempt—writing publicity releases for celebrities. More importantly, he cannot communicate or connect with the film’s one hopeful and innocent character, the “angel” on the beach.

From Jep's birthday party in The Great Beauty, via Janus Films.
From Jep’s birthday party in The Great Beauty, via Janus Films.
The double vision that Fellini articulates in the epigraph above and that gives dramatic shape to so many of his masterpieces is, as I have been saying, helpful in appreciating Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. But there’s one further type of double vision that I’d like to consider, though admittedly it may be entirely idiosyncratic. The imagery of The Great Beauty is so Fellini-esque that, as I watch the film, its set pieces are superimposed on my memories of La Dolce Vita and other Fellini films, and I expect future viewings of Fellini will be a similar experience for me. I imagine a screaming celebrant from Jep’s birthday party at the riotous press conference to appear in 8 1/2, just as I expect the dancers at the Baths of Caracalla in La Dolce Vita to join the conga line on Jep’s terrace overlooking the Colosseum. So too I can picture Cardinal Bellucci from The Great Beauty, obsessed with recipes and parties, preparing himself to walk the runway of the Vatican fashion show with other chic clergy in Roma; and characters from Juliet of the Spirits, who hang on the words of the wizened mystic, Bhishma, joining the ecumenical gathering in The Great Beauty to honor “the Saint.”

Given the Fellini-esque tradition that Sorrentino has taken up, where the boundaries between reality, memory, and dreams disappear, surely viewers may be forgiven this imagined confluence. So, if you find yourself mesmerized by The Great Beauty, seek out Fellini’s masterworks, most of which are part of the Criterion Collection. Then you, too, may be seeing double.

John Moses teaches Film Studies and English at Fresno City College. He serves on the Filmworks board as Program Director.