In May 2013, The Great Beauty was presented in a worldwide preview during the Cannes Film Festival. From the reaction of the audience, we could already feel its monumental artistic significance.
The film is a ruthless portrait of the refined emptiness of contemporary bourgeois society; a wonderful gallery of images of a dying Rome, and a poem on the uselessness of life and the tragedy of getting old. A magnificent movie with worldwide acclaim, the film’s only critics is a few skeptical Italians.
‘The Great Beauty’ entered the collective imagination thanks to the magnetic presence of its protagonist. Capable of embodying the gaze of realism and the oneiric suspension of existence, love and hate, life and death all at the same time, Jep Gambardella captivates the audience.
“I was destined to be sensitive. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.”
But Jep was destined to become a unique style icon as well. Nobly detached from the miseries surrounding him, but at the same time, a victim of a high life destined to fade at sunrise:
“It’s so great how we do the congas at our parties, the greatest congas in Rome; they’re great because we go nowhere.”
Jep may no longer waste his time doing things he doesn’t want to do. All he can do is take refuge in the deceptive persistence of beauty, made tangible by means of money and lifestyle, but still, he never experiences true elegance.
Toni Servillo, perfect in the role, wears tailored mismatched suits like a second skin, with jackets ranging from white to dark blue, from red to mustard-colored. Highly refined outfits, as well as carefully-chosen accessories, go beyond the concept of status symbol to become an essential part of the aesthetic created by Sorrentino, in the spirit of pure Italian taste.
Jep is a master of style no matter the occasion; softly lying down on a sofa en plein air talking about different subjects, attending a vernissage of the Roman high society, or simply relaxing on a hammock “in search of lost time”.
For his 65th birthday party, held on the Martini Terrace near Via Veneto and Trinità dei Monti, Gambardella chooses an impeccable, refined pinstriped suit, which of course, calls for a white shirt and a tie. A series of extravagant characters move around him like fools, each of them embodying caricatures of different lifestyles. The white shirt, a collared button-down with an informal cut, recurs in different scenes throughout the movie, like a loyal friend.
White trousers are perfect for any situation in the film, whether it be matching an orange checked or a canary-yellow jacket. In both occasions, white trousers emphasize the pure elegance that only Jep seems to be able to wear effortlessly.
But the color contrast game sometimes is set aside in favor of tone-on-tone solutions. In this monochrome look, accessories acquire more importance.
Great focus is always put on the character’s posture. His laid-back, but confident, walk ― often with his arms folded behind his back ― is a distinctive element. His gestures are always restrained, as well as his words, even when not placatory.
Emotional excess is not allowed, since showing emotion could be interpreted as a surrender, or a simple sign of weakness.
And Rome, lingering in its monumentality, mechanically moves between art and history, the sacred and the profane. It is the distorting mirror reflecting Jeb’s style, created by the Neapolitan Attolini atelier.
In his drowsy and inebriated wander, Jep starts a “totally imaginary journey,” as Céline’s initial quote from Journey to the end of the night suggests. His journey circles around the inner reality of the individual, in front of the inescapable questions on life, and his reframing of the past tragedies he has encountered.
Among faces frozen by cosmetic surgery, macabre dances embodied by miserable characters, and conversations dizzily discussing nothing, Gambardella moves like a ghost, observing, judging and, maybe, feeling pity for the different miserable human realities which reflect the essence of his unsolved, meaningless, basically lonely life.
Lonely as Rome appears in this movie, notwithstanding the many people milling about in the background, Rome is the real co-protagonist of a film which represents a tribute to its streets, places, and monuments.
“As always, death is the end. But life has been there, hidden under the blah blah blah. Everything’s settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. The silence and the sentiment. The emotions and the fears. The rare volatile flashes of beauty. And then the wretched dreariness and the miserable man. Everything’s buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being alive. Blah blah blah. Somewhere else there is an “elsewhere”. I don’t care about the “elsewhere”. Therefore, let this novel start. In the end, it’s only a trick. Yes, it’s only a trick.”
Many likened ‘The Great Beauty’ to be a sort of La Dolce Vita 2.0. This is due to the way it shows the locations of Rome, the eternal city, always being divided between spirituality and superficiality.
Fellini’s masterpiece began with a scene showing some helicopters carrying statues to Saint Peter’s Basilica while Marcello Mastroianni was trying to get the phone number of some girls lying in the sun on a rooftop. Comparatively, ‘The Great Beauty’ starts with bad words, people washing themselves at a fountain, and Japanese tourists hit by a heart attack while a choir of angelic voices accompanies their actions.
Jep’s character is an innate contradiction. With a simple gesture, he generates conflicting emotions: laughter, melancholy, distress.
Sorrentino films Jep with sincere emotional involvement and strong compassion. Comparatively, the city is represented with intentionally exaggerated tones and sneers: a society which has given up its capability to create projects, lying for a long time on a vanishing bed of golden feathers.