The past and the present, the old and the new, collide spectacularly in Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 award-winning film, The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza). Dapper man about Rome, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), turns 65, and celebrates in grandiose style. The exuberant party thrown in his honour – bursting onto the screen after the film’s more restrained opening sequence at the Janiculum – is wild, to say the least.
“Happy birthday Jep! Happy birthday Rome!” cries a middle-aged actress as she emerges from the birthday cake; she’s described by another guest as “an ex-TV showgirl, now in full physical and mental decline.” Like Jep, she’s also aligned with Rome, a city (like Italy more generally) that is seen by Sorrentino in the wake of Berlusconi’s influence, as being in a state of serious cultural degeneration.
This party gives us the first glimpse of our protagonist, but also of the particular Roman milieu Jep lives in – decadent, extravagant, a never-ending party. Jep resides in a gorgeous, very modern terrace apartment alongside the Coliseum – he’s literally balanced on the cusp of the ancient and the new. Transplanted from Naples many years ago, Jep’s Rome is populated by the young and the beautiful, but also the not so young leisured classes, defiantly energetic in the face of aging and decay.
This carnivalesque environment offers constant diversions. Jep, the ringmaster, stays out late most nights. He walks the streets of the Eternal City at dawn and sleeps until the afternoon, or whenever his benevolent Filipino housekeeper rouses him back to life with coffee and food, before preparing himself to do it all again – on the town seeking the illusory great beauty he never finds.
Jep is a journalist, covering what now passes for ‘arts and culture’ in the ruins of Berlusconi’s Italy – impenetrable, impermanent, hollow. Jep once had aspirations, and more importantly, the potential, to do more with his pen. In his twenties he published his only novel, The Human Apparatus, to critical acclaim. As he explains to Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) when she asks him why he’s never written another, “I went out too much at night. Rome makes you waste a lot of time. It’s distracting. Writing requires focus and peace.”
Jep clearly craves peace and solitude – evident in his early morning persona as the city’s preeminent flâneur – even if he rarely finds it. But he has an awakening after his birthday: “The most important thing I discovered a few days after turning 65 is that I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.” This profound realisation arrives concurrently with another revelation. Alfredo Marti (Luciano Virgilio) visits Jep. He was married for 35 years to Elisa, Jep’s first love. Elisa has recently died and Alfredo announces that her diary, which he has read, confirmed for him that she saw him as no more than a good companion. As he tells an overwhelmed Jep (who has never understood why Elisa abandoned him after an idyllic Neapolitan summer), “We were married 35 years but Elisa always loved you.”
The ancient ground under Jep’s feet cracks. At one of his terrace soirées, he sums up his condition and that of his friends: “We’re all on the brink of despair.” Eventually, he tells his good friend Romano (Carlo Verdone), an impoverished political playwright, that he might start writing again. But he doesn’t make a start, lamenting to his housekeeper after a particularly crazy, coke-fuelled party, “This is my life and it’s nothing.”
But the past is a strong force, and Jep’s return to the place where he was happiest as a young man – a beautiful cove on a Neapolitan beach – grounds him to something more. In his memories of youth, of love, and especially of Elisa, he unearths his roots as a man and a writer. The past offers nourishment – the clarity he requires to understand and explain, as he calls it, “the embarrassment of being in the world.” But he’s always understood this, or had people willing to remind him. In the office of his adoring but shrewd editor, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), Jep eats lunch. On the first occasion, she serves him some reheated rice, delicious and unpretentious. It’s the kind of dish that certainly tastes better the next day. As Dadina says, “The old is better than the new.”
Later, when Jep feels more despondent, Dadina serves him a bean soup. We don’t get a close-up on this, but my guess is it’s a bowl of pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans), a classic Neapolitan dish, the epitome of Italy’s cucina povera, and certainly a meal the young Jep, or as Dadina affectionately calls him, Jeppino (Little Jep), would have eaten often. It’s just the tonic for his ennui. Like the simpler life that this melancholy man craves, this is food with a deep history. This is food that nourishes the body and soul, and that makes him feel like he did as a child – before sadness and cynicism settled in, when life was truly beautiful.
Watch ‘The Great Beauty’ at SBS On Demand
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Watch 'The Great Beauty'
Wednesday 30 December, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies
Friday 1 January, 2:00am on SBS World Movies
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso