I had never seen a stage performance quite like one that a female character gives in the film “The Great Beauty.” As the girl takes the stage, clad in her birthday suit, she lets the audience know she is communist by creatively shaving a hammer and sickle into her pubic area. This compelling tactic of devotion to a political party helps contribute to one of the many eclectic characters that run amok in their own self indulgence, building up the city of Rome as a superficial void entrapping the artistic hedonists who built it and the sufferers trying to escape.
“The Great Beauty” explores the relationship between a man, his peers, his city, his art and his love. This man is Jep Gambardella, a writer who, after his sole novel was hailed as a masterpiece four decades ago, has decided to live a life of excessive partying among a heap of scantily clad, youthful vixens and horny, sartorially inclined elder statesmen, while hardly finding the desire to write anymore. “The Great Beauty” is a beautiful portrait of a man whose once lost love for writing returns as his self-realization of his toxic environment begins to form.
Jep attends the scene with the bare performing artist in order to conduct interviews with the artist afterwards, something he frequently does. Jep announces to the artist that he did not find the performance art to his liking. This artist embodies everyone else around Jep in the self-destructive Rome in which they live.
Everyone claims to be artists. However, the art they produce does not click with Jep, who seems to have sided with the voice of reason and sensibility over society’s egoism and self-indulgence, all of which is blanketed by pseudo-intellectualism. Jep asks this artist what she hopes to tell though her art, how she lives through the vibrations that she claims guide her life, what those vibrations even are. She simply responds with the claim, “I am an artist. I don’t have to explain jack shit.”
Jep’s peers consistently express this. All wanting to be artists, these people think that they can just make art. We see a woman who is bored with her life of being an actress yet has not acted in anything because she cannot find any roles suitable for her high-brow palette. She then decides, spur of the moment, that she will instead be a director.
We see this faux-artistic nature transform into a lifestyle when, at a party, one of Jep’s friends claims that she does not know a famous television actress because shew does not own a television. At first this appears refreshing, someone finally cut off from the constant bombardment of entertainment and art, as well as the need to be in the know. However, another character, after hearing this statement, replies that she knows the woman does not own a television; she likes to proclaim her television-less life frequently.
While we do not live in Italy, the consumption of this faux-intellectual lifestyle seems relevant in our life at Vassar. These old folks are living in a time where the ability to call oneself an artist is simple. Money is power, and since these folks have it, they can create the art they want. They can even be hipsters without televisions, but if they choose that route, they want everyone to know, obviously. It is this accessible, excessive output of art that dilutes the very beauty of true art.
Most characters in the film represent the entangling, seductive grip that Rome has on its inhabitants, but there are a select few that help Jep rediscover the feeling of love his art he had when he wrote that first book so many years ago. These people are the ones who do not ask Jep why he did not write a second book, which is a reoccurring question asked by the shallow socialites throughout the film. The most prominent figure is an 104-year-old saint. She is the quintessential representative of the old beauty within the city that the younger generation has failed to see. There is a scene where the saint stands absolutely still, while hoards of people come up next to her to take selfies with her. Obvious in its statement, yes, but we can just see the lack of appreciation that the people have for what the city used to mean.
The city’s meaning differs depending on which group from which the point of view comes. To most of Jep’s acquaintances, it is the hub that allows them to experience the best sex, drugs and attention possible. On the other end of the scale, Jep says that tourists lie there. He believes that tourists are the best people in Rome. They see the city with wide eyes, an almost childlike sense of wonder. Whereas the inhabitants have become dull to the city, tourists are overwhelmed with the beauty presented before them. So much so that, in the opening prologue, we see a tourist snapping pictures of the city until eventually he collapses as the beauty was so strong that it killed him.
Following this prologue, Jep is told of his former lover, the girl who he first experienced the luscious lips of love with as he wrote his first novel, has died. This sparks Jep’s rekindled quest. The quest that would end with his next book soon. The quest that allowed him to see the difference between the saint and the sinner. The quest that he had originally embarked on to write his next book years ago. This quest was–and is–to find the great beauty. The great beauty that so many have failed to see. Jep, during a heated conversation with another artist, mentions that nobody can truly explain the meaning of art. In this review, this was my best attempt at understanding this film. Dense with ideas and images of art, love and beauty, “The Great Beauty” invites the viewer to take part in the subject’s individual perspectives. There is no doubt, however, that in Jep’s journey to find the great beauty, the film presents itself in such a beautiful way.