© 2014 by James Clark
What can we bring to an ambitious film masking its ambitions in many ways? This question becomes especially pressing in face of the ultra-sophistication inherent in an order of modern Italian cinema, generally perceived to be inexorably receding into oblivion. The peculiarities of such a dilemma might never have staged a counter-thrust without the deft cinematic archaeology of Paolo Sorrentino as disclosed in his film from 2013, The Great Beauty.
It will take a while to lucidly get to the point of such a unique tangle; and as good a beginning as any would be a passage, near the work’s outset, where a celebrity journalist attends a display of site-specific performance art on the outskirts of Rome. Along with a few dozen middle-aged Gran Tourismo drivers and a clutch of academics having put through precious, runic (spring solstice?) paces their expensively educated young children, the writer, Jep, beholds a nude woman (with a hammer and sickle trim of her red-dyed pubic hair), her head covered by a veil, sprint headlong into an ancient stone pillar of the aqueduct defining the space, after which she lies on the ground, bleeding through that veil, and then gets back on her feet, announcing to the shaken audience, “I don’t love you!” But now having passed beyond that, and given her a couple of noncommittal claps of applause, Jep proceeds to interview her, the late sun having finally (iconically?) set. He interrupts the swarthy, bruised sensation of the moment, to protest her referring to herself in the third person, an inflating of her specifics in art-prissy terms of “The Talin Concept.” The unsmooth, rather rustic toiler, a far cry from Jep’s unmistakable urbanity, gallops into the infelicitous harangue, “I don’t need to read. I live on vibrations. The pattern of vibrations cannot be supported by the vulgarity of words.” When Jep registers his sense that that tangent is passé (“You can’t charm me with things like this…”), she retorts, “I’m starting to dislike this interview. You’re an ass!” (It may come about that she herself is one of a surprisingly viable herd of asses.) After arguing, the picture of reasonableness, “I want to know what a vibration is… Lives on vibrations, but doesn’t know what a vibration is…” Jep thinks to put her in her place by patronizingly informing her that he works for a journal that has “a core of cultivated readers” who are beyond being “taken as fools.” She backs down from this chastisement, quietly stating, “It’s a difficult journey for an artist…” But she signs off with the more energetic protest, “You’re an obsessive jerk!”
Jep, the somehow unlikely jerk, now back at the office/ ornately-furnished-home of his publisher-editor, with his poised, self-assured, almost benign humorous presence accessorized by a patrician-style, longish coiffure, smiles warmly when his business partner, Dadina, a self-possessed, swarthy dwarf lady passes out far from the first such accolade he’s received, “This interview is a hoot! [bound to elicit pleasurable sneers from their first-rate clients]… You haven’t had the career you deserve…” He laughs that off expertly, reducing thereby to trivia her affectionate mooting his having been “lazy.” Soon after this, he’s with a friend, Romano, in his spartan studio, who enthuses about his own rendition of a classic from modern Italian literature. Jep urges him to venture into something “original,” and puts his foot down, when the far from affluent hustler moots a pop, insider’s look into Jep the notorious party animal/ celebrity and his startling friends—an action giving him the simultaneous gratifications of eschewing such pomposity and displaying his writer’s smarts to the effect that such a tome would sink like a stone amidst a glut of such low-life angling. Then Romano returns to a subject we can see to have been often tested, namely, Jep’s not having followed up an acclaimed first novel, from decades past, with a second one. “You’ve been lazy. You have to take yourself seriously…” This is clearly another project the clever journalist does not care to pursue.
A bit later he’s at a lavish outdoor party one night where the host interrupts his children having a snack indoors to rather violently dragoon his older daughter (of about eleven years of age) to give the guests and us another instance of performance art in Rome that spring. She had insisted that staying with her siblings was far preferable to her; but her father (described by Jep, to his date, as “the most important art collector in this miserable country”) drags her away to confront a patronage it is safe to say she does not love. As with the girl at the aqueduct, she pauses before her objective (here a monumental canvas on stretchers, stationed on the grounds) and, gasping, growling and shrieking, she proceeds to splash the contents of many large paint cans onto that wall of firm cloth, following up with hurling herself into the soaking canvas, smashing at it and lunging in such a way as to distribute and imbed the rather gory liquid all over the work site. Jep’s young lady friend is alarmed that the child having been pressed into the role of a beast of burden is crying, as if suffering great pain. But Jep, who has been by his date’s father pressed to perform the role of easing her into the successful and gratifying avenues of Roman life, replies—in a register recalling that of the interview at the aqueduct—“What do you mean, hurt? That girl earns millions!”
In light of the presentation thus far framed, it seems that one of the correspondent tasks in meeting the challenges of Sorrentino’s ambitions is becoming aware of recurrent motifs in the narrative—torrents of passion being met by indifference; and the associative plight of Balthazar the donkey, from the distant corridors of film history. But this panoramic film is not a machine to activate by way of twigging on to its constituent parts, its apparatus (Jep’s only book being titled, The Human Apparatus). And one way of going ahead with the vast remainder of this large (in every sense) work, is to note that smug, razor-sharp little Dadina, at the end of Jep’s sixty-fifth birthday party, wanders about her suave associate’s penthouse estate, directly across from the Coliseum, anxiously calling out, “Ragazzi!” [“Guys!” “Kids!”], just as young Balthazar brayed for his young mistress, Marie, as he frantically tried to reunite with her and find supportive life in face of an abandoned farmstead.
Of course there is an extensive network of instances pertaining to the energies of our protagonist; but we have to be alert here to the cornucopia of earlier inventions as spotlighting Jep’s unprecedented and easily underestimated toil, which calls for an essentially immediate, intuitive apprehension of the thrust of the presentation. The shadows of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and, even more importantly, Antonioni’s La Notte, must not mislead us into supposing we have here a rather impertinent, “one more time” tour of mid-twentieth century ennui. The Great Beauty, I hope to make clear, ambitions to outgrow those giants, to set in relief that twentieth century amazements might lead to twenty-first century enchantment. And it aims to do this on the cinematic, experiential basis of—wait for it—vibrations! Sorrentino, though not surprisingly (for an artist whose favorites are David Lynch and the Coens; and, to judge from the abused action painter’s quick premonition of herself covered in paint from head to toe, keeping a close watch on the Nicolas Refn of Valhalla Rising and its very different territory) knowing his way about cinematic metaphors, aims to propel his craft from out of the sensuous glories of Rome itself, including the generous intimacies of its inhabitants. As such, that would prompt us to bring to this scene of revelry, this “Eternal City,” a steady bead upon death. The Great Beauty is, it seems to me, an audacious and incisive meditation upon death inasmuch as it can be encompassed and aptly tempered by ecstasy. Not surprisingly, then, its narrative provides an uneasy counterpoint between collapse and upswing. The first scene, wherein a supernal woman’s chorus rehearses a performance of David Lang’s “I Lie,” on a balcony overlooking a grand piazza which in turn overlooks the whole city, involves a Japanese tourist’s dropping dead in the course of snapping the visual magnificence while the beautiful singing and its guiding composition continues to haunt and delight us. As the tour group assembles around the man and absorbs the bad news, there is a sudden cut to a woman’s face and her piercing scream in the course of dancing, amidst a big party, to an electropop number that, as combined with a huge complement of the sexy young and the persistent old, conveys vibration far more powerfully than the flustered hopeful at the aqueduct. It has to be emphasized that, despite its brushing aside the sublime women’s choir, and presenting to us some very poor dancers and a weaselly little guy who fiercely twists and turns toward a tall young woman and desperately repeats, “I’ll screw you!” the scene emits an unmistakable and infectious ebullience. Over and above the awkward fringe, the heart of the affair features many dancers vamping with skill and wit, and, above all, delighting in motion. And there comes a moment when we see a man’s head and shoulders from behind, surfing that gale of sound, a man with patrician coiffure, a man who, when he turns to face us gives us such a smile that we’d bet a ton he’s a devotee to vibrations! And it’s Jep, indeed, throwing an all-night gala on his huge penthouse terrace in celebration of his being alive and still rockin’. The party, including the birthday boy, is seen upside down, and that’s just right for the dynamical shift in the air. The dancers move inside, where, to a Latin number, there is non-improvisational line dancing (with pre-planned arm and hand patterning) which changes the mood, not for the better. Then, outside again, there is more breathing room, but the earlier whiff of inertia hits like a bomb, everything is in slow-motion, and Jep “looks his age.”
Next morning with his housekeeper, he is critical of “the smell of old people” and, in response to her giving him a lucky pendant from her Asian homeland for his birthday, he remarks gracelessly, “It better be lucky because it’s pretty ugly.” By way of rejuvenation, there are, on his constitutional, convent girls looking his way as he takes on some much-needed water from an ancient fountain amidst richly colored and textured stonework, the children charmingly amused by a little dog. One of them ignores the teacher’s summons, and there are the two of them, recalling Marcello and the angelic girl who could not snap him out of his defeatedness. Further on, there are for him in a quietly effective way a swarm of starlings swooping about the skies in stunning ways. By attending to such highly charged events, we can gain entry to the full range of those self-contradictory gambits by which Jep experiences painful self-doubt, joyful confidence and an intermediate domain of smooth-as-silk curmudgeon. The latter force comes to bear memorably during a dinner party in which a television journalist refers to his book as a novelette.” Being a life-long shepherd of social progress, she can’t resist running with the slick hostility in the air at this gathering (bitchy snipes [by Jep] at another guest’s title for his book of poetry—Up with Life, Down with Convenience; [Jep again] regarding a lady’s troubled son—“He’s always been weird”; and that lady’s in turn cutting up another woman who expressed a fondness for the jazz on the playlist—“The Ethiopian jazz scene is the only one that matters”) to paint sybaritic Jep as an inferior, a trivial figure unable to find the cogency within modest, practical actions. “Rome is the only truly Marxist city [inured to child care]… I have three children and I’ve written eleven novels…I have convictions…I try to be modern, I’ve learned much about life.” Jep’s first line of response to this self-congratulatory insolence is to note the unseemly “ego” behind her devotions, and the “untruths’ in her biography. She calls him a misogynist, and he corrects her in describing himself as a misanthropist. The attacker, Stefania, haughtily demands he point out where there are untruths in her characterization. And, in his best facsimile of a prosecuting attorney, he fires off a rhetorically adept series of embarrassing ironies, couched, however, in an appeal to pay due recognition to simple equilibrium. Her Marxist fixation derived from being for many years the mistress of the Party boss in Italy, who saw to the publication and friendly reviews of her novels which were in fact sentimental tripe. Her devotion to her own children (her “sacrifices”) consisted of hiring a trio of babysitters and very seldom going anywhere near them. Before she leaves the gathering, shaken, he mocks her, “Modern is badass, right? You’re 53, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us… You should look at us with affection instead of contempt…” Counterpointing the unlikely Bolshevik working off her frustration at her cutting-edge, minimalist condo’s pool, we have Jep working off his frazzle by strolling the late-night streets of the deluxe core of Rome. She has resurfaced from an underwater sprint; and his resurfacing is, unsurprisingly, somewhat more complex.
This latter episode, constituting the narrative heart (as distinct from the thematic heart) of the film, begins with the kind of gossamer glimpse concerning which blue-chip Italian cinema excels. On a deserted byway, he encounters a woman, coming in the opposite direction; after passing her, he realizes he knows her and he stops and addresses her, “Signora Ardant…” The lovely lady turns and smiles, then assures him, by her presence, that she’s, just like him, needing solitude. That she’s Fanny Ardant, an Antonioni player, endows the night with its first assurance of sensual wit and magic. (That the actress appeared in Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds , during the filming of which he suffered a stroke, sustains the line concerning deterioration [During another curative ramble coming out of the two-part warfare with Stefania, he passes some joggers, one of whom tells his friends, “Antonioni is a fucking pain in the ass!”]; that it was a film about the seeming impossibility of love due to expecting perfection, ever-so-slightly looks forward to Jep’s showdown with badass modernity.) He stops by a striptease club, the owner of which greeting him profusely, not having seen him for 30 years. That entertainment specialist dolefully brags about having graduated from cocaine to heroin; but his erratic, fretful timbre suggests that his life has effectively escaped his management. Apologizing to a long-lost friend finding it quite easy to always seem “smart” (his wardrobe and real estate making very clear that whatever he’s making with Dadina is not the source of his real income), the club-owner declares, “I sound like a loser.” In a weird and wonderful take on Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, in Antonioni’s La Notte, having it out while an amazing stripper/contortionist does great things, though ignored by the protagonists, the old pal bemoans his forty-two- year-old girlfriend still stripping (not great, but not that bad), seen in silhouette behind them. “She’ll still want to be stripping when she’s 50!” Then he gets down to the most compelling problem of his life, in hopes that his smart friend can tackle its badass-modern dilemma, namely, his daughter, Ramona, who, when she joins Jep and hears him claim to be a friend of her father, declares, “Dad has no friends.” The launch of this liaison could hardly be less promising. Friendless Dad had, before cutting out, remarked that Ramona’s defining quality was, “She always wants money…” clearly implying that she was as drug-dependent as he. Jep’s gambit, “He asked me to find you a husband” [or at least a new source of cash flow] carries on to the proposition, “A family’s a beautiful thing,” which prompts her to maintain, “I know. But I’m not cut out for beautiful things.” Appearances notwithstanding, however, Jep finds in dark, anxious and showgirl-attractive Ramona a regime to offset tatters with a mobilization of the smarts he knows himself to command, though in a most accident-prone way.
These two are definitely not a couple destined from out of heaven. Jep immediately has a bit of slippage, and she asks him with some delicacy (one of the stable of Polish youngsters being average in the glass cage behind their banquette), “What’s wrong?” He replies, “I feel old,” to which she offers, “You’re no spring chicken.” He takes her to the party where the child prodigy produces a painting few can afford, and she, no slouch herself at visual punch, shows up in skin-tight, transparent lace which reveals every feature of her physical resources. An ageing lady remarks to a friend, “Jep’s proving to be a disappointment…” (Ramona, in turn expresses disappointment with the girl’s father, who captures her with his phone and tells them they’ve arrived too late for a knife-throwing performance. “Who was that asshole?”) He introduces her to a young man requiring a cane to walk, but having in his possession a set of keys, to, as Jep explains, “enter the precincts of the most elite domains and art galleries” [another take, that is, on the badass home and art designs that have just finished doing nothing for them]. They proceed into the grounds of a palazzo with ravishing gardens and enter the building, suffused by its stonework and exquisite Renaissance art, all burnished by candlelight. In seeking elevation for Ramona, he’s attending to sensuous treasures that have not only provided so much more securement for him than he’s been able to acknowledge, but have been instrumental in his eschewal of producing writings beyond The Human Apparatus, a title perhaps alluding to an effacement of cultural heroics. Ramona asks the keeper of the keys, “How did you come to possess [them]?” His answer, “I’m a trustworthy person…” whets her curiosity but does not seem to her entirely credible. Along with a clip showing the troubled son of the Ethiopian jazz fan killing himself by running his sports car into an obstacle, there immediately follows Jep, Ramona and the young man coming out upon a fabulous terrace, garden and skies at dawn, silently beholding beauties that don’t need explanation. What first of all seems the primal moon becomes, over a short while, a huge jet coming into Rome. Another trompe l’oeil: the two of them in bed in the morning, neither thrilled nor repelled by what has transpired. Bringing her coffee (as she lies prone upon the bed, her dark skin so flawless) he’s briefly alarmed by her not responding to his voice. Then she comes to life. Before that fright, he managed, with both lying together in bed, on their back, to direct her vision to the reflection of the breathtaking turquoise sea on a mirrored ceiling, our cue to realizing that he has taken her to the Mediterranean coast near Rome, a place that he becomes fixed upon in the course of pulling himself together. Also at this juncture she tells him (after he’s mused, “It’s nice loving someone…”), “I spend all my money curing myself.” He goes on to alert her to the performance/self-aggrandizing possibilities of funerals (the troubled boy’s big scene in the offing). The intense calculations he recites find her (and us) thinking Jep’s proving to be a disappointment. Further discomfiture occurs when, in direct contradiction to his dictum to be smoothly solicitous to the family of the deceased but never under any circumstances to cry, he bursts into tears in his role of one of the pallbearers. Ramona watches from the church pew, at a loss from his fear as much as from his cynicism. Then we see Jep in another smashing ensemble of black. He’s buying cigarettes in a bar far from his comfort zone of the millionaires’ haven. Some young bloods look his way with askance. There is a quorum of winos and a folk-rock playlist. His feeling out of place and miserable in a district affordable to the floundering, grief-stricken father of Ramona is increased by a sharp-tongued funeral attendee and tippler, a catty socialite to whom the vibrations no longer speak, if they ever did. “Who’s going to look after you now?”
That smug and hostile lady hadn’t closely observed how resilient our protagonist could be. The thematic pyrotechnics which round off our saga consist of another woman who spends the night with Jep, a 104-year-old Mother Teresa lookalike, headed for canonization. He’s at a wedding reception on the quietly gorgeous grounds of a bucolic palazzo, and he’s dancing (you might think rather surprisingly) on the grass with Stefania, the questionable modernist. “Life’s marvellous,” he tells her while smiling broadly, his eyes twinkling as we’ve seen them so often before (for instance, in beholding, a few days prior to this event, an outdoor photo exhibition on equally impressive grounds, whereby a young man has recorded and placed in chronological order portraits of his face showing all the changes wrought daily since he was 14 years old [as augmented by his father’s photos of him since he was a baby]). Within this same stream of exploration into change, at the wedding, he approaches, in advance of meeting Stefania, a cardinal touted to be the next Pope (who cautions some enthusiasts [concerning the aged divine about to pay a visit to Rome], “A saint, but not technically”), and with seldom seen shyness and confusion mumbles something about, “…from a spiritual perspective…” But the Church executive, who only wants to talk about food and its expert preparation, brushes him off. Later that day, with Dadina, discussing plans for an interview with the future saint (“…she loves your book…”), he tells her, “Everything around me is dying…” His editor notes, “You’ve changed. You’re always thinking.” They share a supper of minestrone at her desk, and she calls him “Little Jep,” explaining that it will help him if he embraces for a few seconds his distant past and its being free from complication.
The project concerning the Italian lady who has spent the past many decades tending to the wretchedness of those having been born in Mali kicks off with a reception where Catholic notables from near and far pay their respects to a diminutive ancient on what could be called a Roman Holiday. She’s dressed in a version of sackcloth and her complexion, too, does not remind you of Audrey Hepburn; but her little legs dangling in a chair much too big for her zero in on a gem of the lightness of being young. Off pops one of her far from Givenchy-inspired shoes. It makes a sharp noise in the hushed circumstances where kindness and deep respect inform every face. Everyone notices. Jep and Dadina round up an aristocrat-for-hire duo and, with the cardinal dominating the conversation by way of his encyclopedic store of food ideas and religious zeal for carnal pleasure, the evening (at Jep’s place) is less than a blast of social and journalistic splendor. The saint’s hyperbolic spokesman (far more a Catholic operative than his charge, “Sister Mary”) won’t hear of granting an interview, though he assures the media team that she found Jep’s novel, “beautiful and fierce;” and the cardinal once again brushes aside a befuddled Jep, floating a gambit that, when more himself, he’d regard as daft, namely, that the high priest’s reputed skills as an exorcist could help him a lot. In that scrum of swollen egos (Jep had sneered at Stefania in terms of “…ego, ego, ego…” in the course of his hatchet job), no one notices until a long time later that the honored guest has not returned from the wash room. A frantic search of the area fails to locate her. And, at the end of the day, Jep, going to bed, discovers her on the bedroom floor; and, with a cry of shock, for a split second we think again that his special guest has died. Far from it, however. (She was only, like Audrey, cutting out from a boring exercise.) She asks him with whispery passion, “Why did you never write another book?” He tells her he was “looking for the great beauty” that would give his work true stature. “I didn’t find it…” As he began to undress for bed (the lady having been covered by a sheet), we found that he wears a fixture to give the illusion of a flat belly. Coming all the way from that bit of ego, the far from cat walk figure tells him that in Mali she lived on roots, and, accordingly, such grubby fare is “important.” The authority by which she counters his preciousness is rooted in the carnal thrum we’ve seen from the outset, a pulse sustaining her declaration, “You have to live it [poverty].” In an echo of the early morning with Ramona and the keeper of the keys, they go out to his terrace; and there they find that a large flock of migrating flamingos has settled there, some nibbling on the leftover carriage-trade-catered delicacies from the party beginning to look far less abortive than it did a short while ago. Since she’s a saint (in the same vein as that of the donkey invoked in the earlier moments of our trek), she’s so well connected that, as she tells a quietly delighted Jep, she knows every name [every defining feature] of these beautiful visitors from Mali. Then she puffs out a bit of breath from her toothless mouth [actually comprising three baby teeth], and the gorgeous birds (recalling the party girls) take flight upon that vibration, a joy to behold, surpassed only by the Audrey-wattage smile on this ancient oracle’s face. (On one of his hopefully therapeutic rambles he tries to help a mother find her wayward child, a young girl who has made her way to the lower levels of a small basilica. Looking into the dark stairwell in the dead silence, he’s prompted to consult the place as inhabited by an oracle. A child’s voice challenges, “Who are you?” “Who am I? He awkwardly asks. “You’re nobody,” the brat tells him. Yes, from the point of view of stifling ego. No, in light of the boost he gets from his most recent girlfriend. Here we should let Jep tell us, as he told himself in kicking himself for squabbling with Stephania, ‘I didn’t just want to be king of high-life parties. I wanted to have the power to make them a failure.”)
Periodically Jep has been reminded of a brief, enigmatic summer romance when he was a college boy and a beautiful girl (seemingly as well-off as he) paid close attention to him and then vanished from his life. Her husband looks him up, to let him know she has very recently died and has left a diary that declares Jep to have been the only man she ever loved. During the visit of the saint, he plays over to himself a moment during a moonlit evening when she exposes her breasts, covers them again and watches for his reaction. It would appear that she was repelled by something she saw in him, and he spends quite a bit of time trying to comprehend what went wrong. Judging from the rather self-doubting and plebeian aspects of the husband/messenger, one might infer that that same uncharted daring and joie de vivre of Jep’s sensibility, that had induced Stefania to feel he needed cutting down to (mainstream, predictably domestic) size, had driven the (perhaps undeservingly) fascinating rebuff to his ego, coming to seem some kind of iconic visitation. (A vignette shows the young Jep swimming in the stunning blue waters of the Mediterranean, diving far underwater to avoid being torn apart by an onrushing power boat, and being cheered lustily by the group of girls observing this—cheered with feeling by all but one unforgettable, resentful siren.)
After the episode with the true charmer and her flamingos, Jep (alone on a grandiose yacht) is back in the territory of the boating adventure of 1970. Having just been given that right nudge toward consistent buoyancy he had been seeking from an exorcist, a suicide and the now suspect young dream girl, he could muster from his secluded deck a sad little smile progressing, as with Audrey and the other Roman holidayer, to a beam that defines his heart as it does theirs. He tells himself and us that his subsequent aspirations to great beauty would no longer find the myriad impediments to preclude “taking things seriously,” a recommendation his much-maligned admirer, Romano (who eventually drops his own lofty, quantity-dependent plans [“Rome disappointed me”]) tried (not that unlike the vibrations specialist) to make fly, for Jep and for himself. From the deck of his deluxe observatory, he recalls the temptress giving him not only a glimpse of her breasts (another exasperating stripper) but a taunting hardness in her eyes. “This is how it always ends, with death. But buried beneath the blah, blah, blah, the clutter, there is silence and sentiment, the haggard, inconstant splashes of beauty… Now let the story begin. It’s just a trick.” (A friend had shown him a magic trick whereby he makes a giraffe disappear. [At that point, a depressed Jep had asked, “Can you make me disappear?”] The saint’s dispersing her flamingos was sensual deftness far beyond any stunt; and Jep’s use of “trick” ironically alludes to his recently acquired magic rooted in love. In a shaky run-up to this realization, Jep tells a woman anxious about her just-ended performance of making love with him [“I’m not very good…”], “It’s sad being good. Good falls into being merely deft.”)
Jep had maintained, to the young man about to allow his trouble to kill him, that Proust’s sense of death emergent at any time did not undermine lightening up. He had, however, that day (with Ramona in bemused attendance), resorted to the sophistical trick, “Things are too complicated to be known by one person…” His transformation, that was always at the tip of his fingers, might result in another book, one that would no longer have to be devastating. He might, on the other hand, persist in spreading cheer and continue to be a lightning-rod for dogmatic killjoys. It’s even within the realm of possibility that, like his mentor, he might carry through a love of life to the point of charitable actions utterly shorn of their historically long-standing egotistical resentments. (During the post-narrative credits, we’re on a [yachting?] cruise along the Roman shore of the Tiber, and we behold the vast, often grotty, incident that Jep has finally got a creative handle on.) While he goes yachting, the sublime new woman in his life drags her arthritic little body up a long, steep flight of stairs to do homage to her wide open spaces, her rough-hewn heaven illuminating such a range of love. (Though she maintains a sense of taking vows of “poverty,” her hotel is in the five-star Spanish Steps district.) The Great Beauty casts light upon a most subtle and unprecedented migration in the midst of patterns seemingly cast in stone.
A production of such complexity and astonishment might, in the course of its being explored, find itself somewhat being overlooked as a directly sensuous communication. There is, to me, one scene that transports the viewer in a way that is sheer filmic magic. During the wedding reception on the grounds of the estate, the cardinal and other guests of a hyperactive bent race off to what they call “a skunk hunt.” Those staying behind on the vast lawn are touched by a quietly uncanny play of diffuse sunlight and an accordingly rippling musical motif by a small dance band. In this stream adults stand transfixed and children dart around delighted parents. Jep dances with Stefania and they are, within this moment, generous and delighted with each other. He tells her, “The future is marvellous, Stefania!” As we savor the work’s magical (though all but invisible to a viewer bound to circumspective issues) seismic shift, featuring our protagonist, we have to pay homage also to the countless little passages of gentle congeniality defining the players as much closer than they realize to as much creativity as life allows.