Whilst Paolo Sorrentino’s last outing saw him work with the Hollywood stalwart Sean Penn in the offbeat picture This Must Be the Place (2011), his new work The Great Beauty sees him reunited with his longtime creative collaborator, the Italian actor Tony Servillo. Here Servillo plays the role of Jep Gambardella, a faded, jaded 65 year old journalist and socialite languishing in a bourgeois malaise of his own making amongst the cream of Rome’s social strata.
There are parallels that can be made to Sorrentino’s previous lead, as both Penn’s washed up flotsam and jetsam rock-star Cheyenne and Servillo’s Gambardella are characters who are past their prime. They are both arguably going through an existential crisis; searching for a meaning and purpose to their ostensibly vacuous ways of living. There is a certain emptiness to the affluent lifestyles of Gambardella and his friends, and this may be a satirical scythed swipe at the shallow decadence of contemporary Italy and the Berlusconi regime in particular.
In a similar vein to Berlusconi, Gambardella himself also occupies a position of esteem and utilises this position to sleep with much younger women, with one being a prostitute. The script also seems to provide barbed satire, with one sequence being a tour de force in dialogue. Here Gambardella verbally eviscerates the pride from one particularly supercilious fellow writer and lays bare the worn façade of social respectability. The hollowness of their existence is hinted at being a driving force behind Gambardella’s prolific inactivity, with one line perfectly encapsulating this sense of a paralysing ennui- ‘if Flaubert couldn’t write a book about nothing how can I?’.
With its similar conceit of the philandering journalist struggling for creative there is a strong connection to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Furthermore there is the same abundance of well known tourist landmarks within its milieu such as the Colosseum, echoing La Dolce Vita’s use of Trevi fountain. Unlike some uses of popular landmarks like the Eiffel Tower in cinema this employment is not used for means of a perfunctory signposting to the audience but to reflect how the elite only ever see the shop-front of Rome and not its darker underbelly, and are therefore like tourists in their own city.
Just as Rome itself is depicted through a necessarily romanticised lens so is Gambardella’s own memory of his first sexual awakening, an experience so etched in his mind that it seems to plague him. Hearing that the woman who he shared this experience with had died visibly stirred him, and such a reaction is resonant with the Portugese word suadade meaning the feeling of melancholy for that which is cherished but which can never be regained. Gambardella’s longing also seems relational to a quote from Sigmund Freud: “when the original object of an instinctual desire becomes lost in consequence of repression, it is often replaced by an endless series of substitute objects, none of which ever give full satisfaction”. Consonant to this Gambardella is seen to flit from one lover to the next, never obtaining the same level of profound emotional connection that his vivid memories of his first love elicit.
Gambardella’s straining state of suadade is perhaps also an instance of what is quoted at the film’s close of “tiny, sporadic flashes of beauty” in life that are “hidden underneath the blah blah blah”. Other moments in the film echo this idea such as one uncanny moment of pure magic realism in which a whole flock of flamingos lay to rest on Gambardella’s balcony, and it is just such fleeting, humbling instants of unbridled pleasure amidst the all enveloping grey that the film celebrates.