‘The Great Beauty’ urges us to look at our lives

“The Great Beauty” (“La grande bellazza”) (2013). Cast: Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Verdone, Serena Grandi, Carlo Buccirosso, Pamela Villoresi, Luca Marinelli, Giusi Merli, Roberto Herlitzka, Giovanna Vignola, Iaia Forte, Massimo De Francovich, Vernon Dobtcheff, Galatea Ranzi, Giorgio Pasotti, Isabella Ferrari, Luciano Virgilio, Annaluisa Capasa, Flavio Mieli. Director: Paolo Sorrentino. Screenplay: Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello. Story: Paolo Sorrentino. Web site. Trailer.

Taking stock of where we stand in our lives can be a very rewarding – and revelatory – experience. Sometimes we affirm what we already know, but, in other instances, we come to conclusions that come as surprising, if not shocking or perhaps even disillusioning. That’s just the sort of exercise an aging protagonist pursues in the profoundly moving, often hilarious Italian comedy-drama, “The Great Beauty” (“La grande bellazza”).

Celebrating one’s 65th birthday should be a joyous occasion. But, for journalist and one-time novelist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), the event evokes mixed emotions. The longtime fixture of Rome’s social scene throws an outrageous party for himself, one where all of the city’s beautiful people and celebrity elite turn out for a full-blown hedonistic bacchanal. It’s not unlike many of the evenings Jep has spent over the years, long, drawn-out nights of debauchery stretching well into the wee hours. But, in addition to their never-ending festivity, those extended evenings of decadence also provided Jep with ample opportunities for making connections, digging up dirt, and witnessing the spectacle of the city’s life and culture in all its profoundly sublime – and superficially tawdry – regards. It’s a lifestyle that has made Jep an icon of Roman high society. But is that truly an achievement to be proud of?

Reaching this chronological milestone gives Jep a chance to evaluate where he is and what he’s done with his life. To be sure, he’s enjoyed the fame, fortune and notoriety that he’s amassed. He has a diverse circle of friends, such as Romano (Carlo Verdone), a perpetually aspiring playwright; Lello (Carlo Buccirosso) and Viola (Pamela Villoresi), a philandering toy manufacturer and his sweet wife; Orietta (Isabella Ferrari), a wealthy, beautiful amateur photographer; and Stefania (Galatea Ranzi), a novelist and outspoken Communist Party activist. He also has a number of trusted colleagues and confidantes, including Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), his fiercely devoted editor; Trumeau (Iaia Forte), his playfully rambunctious housekeeper; Egidio (Massimo De Francovich), the owner of a high-profile gentlemen’s club; and Stefano (Giorgio Pasotti), a gatekeeper to many of the city’s treasured landmarks. Jep enjoys the company – and wisdom – of this colorful array of associates.

Despite this wide circle of contacts, however, Jep is alone, unmarried and childless. He’s also in the process of watching a number of his friends and colleagues make their final transitions, some of whom are considerably younger than he is. These passings, especially the death of a love interest from his youth (Annaluisa Capasa), give Jep even more reason to contemplate his circumstances, particularly with regard to his own mortality and how he has spent – or misspent – his life.

Jep’s introspection proves quite eye-opening. After years of being caught up in a celebrity-filled stupor, he comes to view the current state of Roman culture with growing cynicism and disdain. He increasingly rolls his eyes while watching clueless, would-be artists engage in pursuits devoid of meaning, substance or intelligence, such as a naked performance artist who inexplicably runs headlong into the stone ruins of a Roman aqueduct as part of her art. He rails at the shallow, baseless observations of pseudointellectual pundits who spout allegedly pithy insights about the state of contemporary Italian society. And he grows disillusioned when he sees Rome’s ubiquitous religious leaders, such as papal wannabe Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Herlitzka), unable to address even the most basic of spiritual questions, instead defaulting to such irrelevancies as recounting the details of one of the many recipes from his extensive culinary repertoire. But what’s even more distressing to Jep is his realization that he’s helped contribute to the formation of that culture. Is this truly the life he wants to continue to lead?

Jep wonders, for example, why he’s devoted his considerable writing talents to penning journalistic pieces about celebrities and contemporary culture instead of more serious undertakings. Why, for instance, did he stop composing literary works, such as his one and only novel, which was a critical and financial success beloved by a devoted following of readers? He also reflects on why he’s settled for passing flirtations instead of more serious romantic relationships over the years. Was it because he couldn’t picture himself so settled, or was there some other reason behind his reluctance to commit?

These realizations slowly prompt Jep to consider more substantive alternatives. Quietly touring Rome’s classic cultural treasures becomes preferable to enduring yet another tiresome evening of purported “art.” Spending time getting to know an aging Catholic missionary in line for sainthood (Giusi Merli) proves more fulfilling than chasing the juicy scoops of the latest headline-makers. And enjoying the company of an aging but elegant companion (Sabrina Ferilli) – even if she is a stripper – is more enjoyable than negotiating his way through the minefield of jaded, self-absorbed courtesans who dot the landscape of Rome’s nightlife.

But will this change of heart provide Jep with the answers he seeks? Can he recapture the wonder and idealism that characterized him in his youth? Indeed, will he be able to find “the great beauty” of life that he has long sought but that has somehow always eluded him or become obscured by his own self-aggrandizement? These are tough questions for Jep, but he’s reached a point in his life where he must at least attempt to find answers to them if he’s to have inner peace for whatever time he has left.

Most think of the concept of “a life review” (like the one Jep conducts) in the context of events like near death experiences. But need we wait until we’re near or past the threshold between the worlds to engage in such evaluations? Indeed, many enlightened souls throughout the ages, such as the ancient Egyptians, have maintained that the time to conduct those kinds of assessments is before we move on, for that kind of introspection can help us prepare for what we experience once we transition. But, perhaps even more importantly, the conclusions we draw from such appraisals can also be used to help us shape our lives for the time in advance of that eventual shift, and that can prove invaluable for helping us make the most of our lives.

At the core of such evaluations is an assessment of our beliefs, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the conscious creation process. These appraisals enable us to see where we stand, where we’ve been and where we’d like to go by spotlighting the outlooks we’ve held and the intents we’ve drawn upon in shaping the various phases of our lives. This makes it possible for us to look at the beliefs we hold and how we might like to change them if they no longer serve our needs.

This is precisely the kind of exercise in which Jep engages. And, thankfully for him, he has the presence of mind to realize this before it’s too late. Many of us never take the time to pursue such evaluations, and even Jep has put it off for a long time. But, as long as we make the effort to do so while we still have the chance (as Jep does), the more likely we’ll create an existence of satisfaction and fulfillment for what time we have left – and even for after we move on.

While conscious creation maintains that all probabilities are equally valid and capable of physical expression, Jep’s personal explorations draw attention to some of those that are, arguably, most worthy of serious investigation. For example, while many of those around him engage in pursuits without apparent meaning or substance, Jep sees the emptiness underlying their manifestations. He tries to understand the beliefs driving those conceptions and sees that even those materializing them are unaware of what they’re doing. Their fundamental lack of self-awareness thus illustrates their engagement in the practice of un-conscious creation or creation by default, where they let reality happen to them rather than consciously shape their own destinies. Again, Jep’s efforts are aimed at avoiding that pitfall, helping him evade the unfulfilling futures that many of his colleagues are likely facing. We’d be wise to follow his example.

“The Great Beauty” is an inspired piece of filmmaking in many regards. Its gorgeous camera work, hauntingly beautiful soundtrack and eclectic performances paint an elegant cinematic portrait. Its thoughtful themes and insightful narrative have been brilliantly conveyed to the screen, thanks to the picture’s astute (and often uproarious) writing and its masterful direction by Paolo Sorrentino, one of Italy’s premier contemporary filmmakers (and definitely someone to watch for the future). The style and mood of this film recall the works of Federico Fellini and Woody Allen, paying proper homage to these influences without blatantly copying them and simultaneously giving rise to a celluloid character all its own, quite an accomplishment for sure.

For its achievements, the picture was widely recognized in the movie industry’s recent awards competitions. “The Great Beauty” captured an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award as best foreign language film. In addition, the film earned nominations in the same category in the Critics Choice and Independent Spirit Awards programs, as well as a Palme de’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor.

“The Great Beauty” has been playing in limited release, mostly at film festivals and at theaters specializing in foreign and independent cinema. Thankfully, however, the picture has recently garnered wider attention with its release on DVD and Blu-ray Disk.

Looking at our lives is something most of us should engage in on a regular basis, if for no other reason than getting a handle on where things stand. It can be important not only for the present or the near term, but also for the long run, be it in this world or the one that lies beyond our current physical limitations. “The Great Beauty” provides a road map for this practice, taking us on an affecting cinematic tour of life, one filled with the wonder that we create and the miracle that is each of us.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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