The Great Beauty is such an unusual concoction of sights and sounds, it’s a wonder it works at all. Watching it is like seeing a walking bicycle and realizing, to your amazement, that one can actually ride it.
The movie follows Jep Gambardella, the king of Rome’s night life. Jep came to Rome in his twenties, after having written a very promising novel, but 40 years later he is settled as a journalist for a high-class literary magazine. Jep has friends, who are just as frustrated and unsatisfied with their lives as he is, despite having all their red Ferraris and high-rise condos. Together they keep each other company and form a support group of sorts. The presence of other miserable people convinces them it’s ok, the life is still worth living and facade is still worth maintaining.
Jep has invested last four decades into becoming the Rome’s chief socialite and now he has the power to make party a success or disaster. But there’s something compulsive about his pursuit of entertainment and admiration. Like a functioning alcoholic, Jep doesn’t enjoy his life, but has no will to change it either. He reminds me of Michael Fassbender’s sex-addict character in Shame. At the time of orgasm, Fassbender’s expression was not that of pleasure, but of pain.
Soon after his 65th birthday, Jep notes to himself that he no longer can afford doing things he doesn’t want to do. Instead, he looks up his old friends, learns more about his now-dead girlfriend who left him 40 years ago and develops a friendship with 41 year old stripper named Ramona. Ramona doesn’t try to appear important or intellectual, she seems to exist entirely in the present moment. (That presence of mind has its own price, as we learn later)
One of the appealing things about Great Beauty is that its characters are not aware of how funny they are. The pinnacle of comical absurdity is a 104 year old Catholic ‘saint’. She’s not official saint yet, we’re told, but everyone calls her Santa (Saint) Maria. She looks like a mummy that just walked out of its glass case in British Museum, communicates with animals and at one point parodies the ‘stair crawl‘ from the Exorcist. And yet, at no point the film is making fun of her. Nobody seems to question their sanity when Santa Maria asks a flock of migrating flamingos to rest on Jep’s balcony.
Sometimes I think the Great Beauty is making it intentionally difficult for us to get to the story. The opening scene with Jep’s euro-trash birthday party lasts several minutes longer than storytelling rules require. The changes between scenes are often abrupt and even stunning, leaving the viewer to fill the gaps. There’s no obvious drama or big emotional payoff, as you’d expect from an American movie. And yet, at its core, it’s the same old story about a writer who has lost his inspiration and tries to figure his place in the world. I feel sympathy for him and his journey, just like I would in any other film.