The Great Beauty
Words By Avalon Lyndon
It’s telling that Sorrentino chooses to begin his The Great Beauty in the hushed reverence of a church. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, this totem of Roman grandeur is the definition of sturdiness, holding in its walls the stubborn perseverance of religion and a remembrance of former glories. Quiet veneration is pierced by a haunting soprano; we watch a tourist revel in the atmosphere.
But enough of that. With little warning, we’re thrown into the fray at a rooftop party for Rome’s bourgeois elite. It’s decadence and debauchery defined: think Spring Breakers for the forty-something glitterati. The camera swoops around the revellers, drinking in the sex, sin and spirits. It’s a visual cacophony, and right at the centre of it all is one man: Jep Gambardella – self-proclaimed “king of the high life.” A highly-regarded journalist and one-time novelist, Jep Gambardella is the man to know in Rome. Effortlessly charismatic
and disarmingly likeable, he seems to have everything he could ever want. Surrounded though he may be, by the opulence and decadence of Rome’s high society, Jep is searching from something that always seems just out of reach: true beauty. What better place to find it, of course, than the city that was once the beating heart of European culture? You can’t move in Rome, after all,
for grandiose buildings begging to be photographed. Jep’s rooftop terrace overlooks the Coliseum – naturally – giving him an almost God-like view of the city around him. But where a tourist sees splendour and a passerby sees beauty, Jep sees decay and decline. As Rome’s monuments crumble, so does its culture. We see airheads at parties chit-chatting about the
Shakespeare adaptation they’re just on the brink of writing, or the Proustlike novel they’re just waiting to get down on paper. It’s a city where pretension is given free reign. When Jep interviews a performance artist about her work, he refuses to be fobbed off by her preference for “vibrations” over the “vulgarity of words.” Like a cheekier and somewhat better dressed Paxman, Jep suffers no
fools. Sorrentino’s dramatic staging and Luca Bigazzi’s striking eye for lighting is a perfect fit for long-term collaborator Tony Servillo’s nuanced, warm performance. Though the narrative may dip and dodge conventional storytelling methods, there’s never a moment when you doubt that these guys know what they’re doing.
While Jep hunts the ineffable, we journey alongside him. We take a hush-hush tour around a secret collection of Rome’s most beautiful art. We’re ushered into an underground Botox clinic for Rome’s blackmarket cognoscenti. We will on a brittle old woman as she performs an astonishing feat of faith. We observe past-it starlets snort coke off Jep’s gleaming kitchen surfaces. And we watch him fall in love, and suffer the consequences. What we find is a portrait of Rome as a city of paradoxes: a glorious mishmash of purity and filth. It’s a place where John Tavener’s eerily beautiful The Lamb can back onto Bob Sinclaire’s infectious Euro-pop as if the two were made to be mashed up. The Great Beauty is whirlwind of colours, sounds and images: a Roman tornado of modern-day decadence and ancient glories. And while it might not always be beautiful – it’s certainly a trip.