«… look at these people, this fauna. That is my life: it’s nothing.»
Carlo Verdone is right. The movie by Paolo Sorrentino is not about Rome. It narrates the humanity, not the city. At the most, it depicts Italy, the whole Italy. For this reason, it could have been set everywhere, even in Milan. However, The Great Beauty shows the present day’s Baroque and Milan has nothing to do with the Baroque of the past. Rome is the perfect, magnificent, and tragic set. It is only the movie set, though, and nothing else.
Baroque is meant as a form which is gaudy, exaggerated, and distasteful, as a contrast between aesthetic tangles and sparse contents. Rome, indeed. That Rome made of fountains, squares, churches, which are all admirably confused, heavy, and allegoric. Yet, they are imposing, thus able to cover and fake. Today they are nighttime scenes of prurient pieces of humanity, women with 16cm stiletto, beefy men, and luxury cars. There is only an apparent contrast between the past and the present Baroque. It’s like if the time itself could fill the empty contents. The purpose of the past time and of the present is the same: dazzling in order not to see beyond.
Karol Wojtyla, who was elected Pope a few days prior, asked in the Vatican where the Church was in Rome. This is not a paradox at all, although it seems so. He himself initiated the search and found it in Sant’Egidio. Also, he wanted the nearby small church of San Lorenzo in Piscibus to be active as a place for young people who meet and pray. It is a plain and simple church, apt to welcome and point out, a spiritual place, not a theatrical one.
«… the poverty is not to be narrated, is to be lived.»
A cardinal appears at some point in the movie, when in the story the allegory becomes more manifest. It is a cardinal, eligible to be pope, whom they met during a carnival party, who is always busy giving cooking recipes and, in the face of the «spiritual view point», goes to hunt skunks in the bush.
The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino won the Oscar for the best foreign movie. After 15 years, an Italian movie deserves again such a prestigious prize. The last one was La vita è bella by Benigni, a completely different, politically correct story. On the opposite, Sorrentino recalls the Oscars of Neorealism. At that time, though, what won was the representation of Italy as a lively country, ready to revive after World War 2. Today The great beauty wins the Oscar for showing a dreadful decadence.1
Realism is the capability of speaking about reality. Even by transfiguration of reality, at times, as Sorrentino does. This is because the content, rather than the form, has to be real. In this sense, the narrative style couples The Great Beauty and Il Divo. Both movies are like a punch to the stomach. Ten minutes of a cheesy party at the overture of The Great Beauty are effective in triggering a sense of uneasiness. The same is the representation of some contemporary art: an ill, empty, and decaying individualism. The head to the wall, the little girl who stains with paints, the mute installation of daily photos of the pseudo-artist.
Paolo Sorrentino puts the spectators in front of a mirror, making them reflecting themselves and the most hidden facets of the humanity. Realism means that there are no alibis, no indulgence towards the compassion or to the opportunism.
There aren’t the usual accusations against institutions, politics, and mafia, which by now represent a journalistic, literary, and cinematographic genre. There is only plain and naked humanity that, if anything else, produces certain institutions, politics, and crime. These faults do not come from the others, not from everybody.
«I looked for the great beauty, but I have not found it.»
The story is fatal. There is no way out, except for the death. The physical death that eventually frees from the spiritual nothing of feeble and empty lives. The great beauty is unreachable, because it is not art, theatre, party nor words. The voice tone of Jep Gambardella, which is the same as Toto’s in Signori si nasce, does not suffice. Neither does the severe and distant echo of Eduardo in Napoli milionaria. The great beauty is life, life without pretense, the pulsating life of the horrendous and caravagesque face of the saint nun: the great beauty, indeed, which is the opposite of the Baroque. The movie has strong and sharp traits. It is moralistic. The Oscar is its seal. Passing it off as a manifesto of the recovery of the culture or of Italian cultural assets means that one watched another movie.
«It always ends like this, with the death.
Before that, though, there was life, hidden under the hoo-ha hoo-ha…
All is settled under idle talks and noise. Silence and feelings, emotions and fear.
Some haggard, inconstant flash of beauty too.
Deplorable squalor and miserable human beings as well.
Everything is buried under the blanket of shame of being alive, hoo-ha hoo-ha…
Elsewhere there is the beyond.
I do not deal with the beyond…
Therefore, let us start this novel. After all, it is only a trick.
Yes, it is only a trick.»
1 These are the 13 Oscar prizes won by Italian cinema as Special Prize (the first two) and in the category ‘Best foreign movie’: Sciuscià (by Vittorio De Sica, 1948), Ladri di biciclette (by Vittorio De Sica, 1950), La strada (by Federico Fellini, 1957), Le notti di Cabiria (by Federico Fellini, 1958), 8½ (by Federico Fellini, 1964), Ieri, oggi, domani (by Vittorio De Sica, 1965), Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (by Elio Petri, 1971), Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (by Vittorio De Sica, 1972), Amarcord (by Federico Fellini, 1975), Nuovo cinema Paradiso (by Giuseppe Tornatore, 1990), Mediterraneo (by Gabriele Salvatores, 1992), La vita è bella (by Roberto Benigni, 1999), La grande bellezza (di Paolo Sorrentino, 2014).