Beautiful Lies

Thought’s on Paolo Sorrentino’s “La Grande Belleza”

Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning “La Grande Bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”) places the audience inside a dream. The dream is that of Jep Gambardello, an aging writer who’s struggling with his lavish but unproductive career. We follow him around the historical and stunning city of Rome as he parties, converses with his companions, and reminisces about his youth. We’re led to believe that what we are watching is reality. However, when we pay attention to the strange and fascinating details of the film, the oneiric qualities of Jep’s story are revealed to us. Prostitutes dance in the street, a giraffe is found within the crumbling confines of Rome’s ancient architecture, absurd party-goers dance with trees as they sip martinis, and voices without bodies utter haunting judgments. These bizarre events contradict the otherwise veritable narrative of the film and also serve to highlight the theme of “The Great Beauty”: fabrications.

“The Great Beauty” is a film about the lies we tell ourselves. We like to think that we are happy, successful, loved, hard-working individuals — and maybe some of us are — but the reality of all of our lives is that “we are all constantly on the brink of despair” as Jep candidly points out. Jep himself is not excluded from this group. His “masterpiece”, The Human Apparatus, was written in his youth and propelled him to the heights of stardom and the accompanying nightlife. There he remained for 40 years, never writing another novel, and instead focusing on becoming the king of the nightlife, who was not only invited to the parties, but had “the power to make them a failure”. Throughout the film, Jep tells himself that he will begin to write again, but not once is he shown in front of a computer. Instead, he parties and wanders about the city. The other characters build up their importance and work in the same manner, but the contradictory reality of their situations are revealed to us throughout the film.

The movie also takes a critical look at modern Italy. The times of Roman Caesars, globe-spanning empires, and reverent artwork are forever gone. Now, Italy is tied for last place in the EU in Transparency International corruption-perception’s index, struggling to support a flailing economy, and has yet to completely distance itself from Silvio Berlusconi’s shenanigans. Sorrentino depicts an Italy wrestling with a lack of identity in the modern age. What “The Great Beauty” seems to be asking is whether the proper place to find that identity is in the past or within the soul of the new generation?

In the film, characters of the older generation have their own answer to this question. There are numerous occasions throughout the film in which the older characters mourn the moral, artistic, and political decline that they perceive to be happening within Italy. They see the new generation of Italians as lazy, incompetent and boring. However, Sorrentino does an excellent job of juxtaposing the empty chatter of the older generation with the action of the younger generation. We only see a few characters under the age of 30 in “The Great Beauty”, but the ones that we do see are creative and lively. At one of the numerous parties shown in the film, the older generation stands back in awe as a young girl hurls buckets of paint at a giant canvas and furiously slashes at the paint with her hands. By the end of her exhibit, she is covered in paint and exhausted, but she created something beautiful. What has the audience done other than stand back and watch? What the older generation fails to realize is that they are the ones that have failed their country. Rather than contributing to the success of Italy through art or political reform, they have partied their country to the ground. They consistently lie to themselves, and blame others for the deplorable state of the country without realizing that they could’ve prevented it.

“The Great Beauty” not only looks at the moral and political state of Italy, but at the declining state of the Catholic church as well. It focuses in on how the luxurious lifestyles and consumerism embedded in the older generation has infected the spiritual element of Italy. There is one scene in particular that addresses this issue in a brilliant manner. Several dozen bourgeois citizens, Jep included, sit in a posh waiting room decorated in crimson red and magnificent gold. Two nurses enter, followed by a doctor dressed in an outfit resembling that of a priest. The two nurses sit down on the outside of the doctor and begin calling out numbers. Each of the patients timidly walk up to the doctor and sit before him to receive Botox injections. They converse with the doctor in hushed tones, almost as if they were confessing. His blessing is bestowed upon them in the form of the injections. After their blessing, they thank the doctor and humbly walk away. It is a brilliant metaphor, and clearly demonstrates the way in which vanity and self-love have taken over the spiritual landscape, rendering the church as a place where one goes to feel better about themselves rather than a place of worship and sacrifice.

With that in mind, it’s interesting that Sorrentino makes a missionary, Sister Maria, the wisest and most respectable character of the film. She has spent her life working with patients in Africa and is is now 104 years old. Deep wrinkles line her face, most of her teeth are gone, and an aura of suffering seems to surround her. Jep has been assigned to interview her by his editor. A dinner is arranged and Maria and her assistant come to Jep’s house. The guests sit around the table and chatter. She says nothing throughout the meal, with her assistant answering all questions. Finally, Jep’s editor begins pressing Maria for an interview with Jep. She laconically replies, “I took a vow of poverty. And you can’t talk about poverty, you have to live it”. Finally, with only a few minutes left in the film, we have a line of dialogue about the importance of meaningful action and dedication. Her second and final line of dialogue seems to answer the spiritual question posed throughout the film. Jep finds her sitting on his porch at the break of dawn, surrounded by flamingos resting from their migratory route. She turns to Jep and says “Do you know why I only eat roots? Because roots are important” before releasing a breath of air that sends the flamingos flying away. The spiritual and historical questions posed by the film have now been answered and Jep’s dream slowly comes to a close. Jep wakes up and ends the film with an honest and substantive voice-over that leaves the audience in a ponderous and satisfied state:

“This is how it always ends, with death. But, first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah blah blah. It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And, then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world. Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don’t deal with what lies beyond. Therefore, let this novel begin. After all… it’s just a trick. Yes, it’s just a trick.”

“The Great Beauty” is a moral film of the utmost importance. With the recent release of classified CIA documents listing and describing the despicable methods of torture that the US has been involved in, we can look to “The Great Beauty” and begin to understand how to change our tattered and crumbling moral state. We should look at our history through a clear lens and learn the invaluable lessons embedded therein. We should look at past thinkers and draw from their wisdom. We should look at the activists and civil rights leaders of the past and emulate their humility and dedication. Finally, we should look at ourselves. We should make efforts to not cloak ourselves in lies and pride, but to be honest about who we are and make changes accordingly.

Originally published at on December 14, 2014.

Like what you read? Give Caleb Downs a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.