Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writers: Paolo Sorrentino & Umberto Contarello
Cast: Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Verdone.
I finally had the chance to see the film La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) – the Italian movie that won last year’s Oscar for best foreign film. I had been wanting to see it since I first heard about it, and that desire intensified with every award the film won or was nominated for. Today I got that chance and I am so glad that I did. It’s very interesting that the movie won the foreign language category, but I can see why it did. I hate to say it, but it is probably due to short-sightedness on the Academy’s part, and although it may have been for the wrong reasons the film is nonetheless very deserving.
It is a gorgeous movie. Superficially depicting Rome, and by consequence Italy, as a gorgeous locale with exciting nightlife and a cast of characters that rivals a Fellini movie (my allusion to Fellini is intentional, and will be developed in a bit). Each shot is wanderlust inducing. The frames caress delicately every inch of the monuments that have given Rome the nickname of the Eternal City. The sculptures and marbles are shone in lights that accentuate their majesty. This is the city that once ruled an empire, the city of history and politics, the city of the cinema of yore where Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Anna Magnani walked the cobblestone paths towards fame and fan adoration. These are the reasons why, most likely, this movie has received so much acclaim and so many accolades. Beneath the surface, though, the veneer is crumbling.
I mentioned Fellini because in more ways than one this film is the bookend to La Dolce Vita. The 1960 movie was innovative and a reflection of its time. It was finally exciting to be Italian again: technology and industry were booming, the advent of television had changed society to its core, leisure was suddenly a possibility. The film was a glorification and indictment of the rich but it was also making a statement, and that was that there was a high society in Italy and one that wasn’t necessarily born in nobility. Life was to be lived in the open. The need to show off (oneself, riches, scandals) was integral to status making and fame mongering. Women were objects of desire and little more than archetypes that served as foils to the men that needed introspection and validation.
So what has changed? Well, if Sorrentino’s movie is any indication, then nothing. The decadence is still alive, but it has transferred to the domestic – nobody wants to see the showcasing of excess thrown in their faces any longer. However, that doesn’t mean the partying has ended. Pretentiousness and ostentatiousness still reign supreme. Via Veneto, the street that was so important in La Dolce Vita as a locale to show off and show up, has become a street of luxurious hotels and is now home to the tourists who want to recreate those images of exotic Italian wealth and divertissement. The lifestyle may still seem as exciting and entertaining as ever, but the shine has began to wane. The film is at the same time a parody of a lifestyle that people abroad associate with a country whether or not it is a truthful one, and also the movie is a condemnation of the country itself, its values, and recent accomplishments. The inclusion of Yolanda Be Cool’s song “We No Speak Americano” is the best representation of this. The song samples Renato Carosone’s 1956 neapolitan song “Tu vuò fà l’americano” and turns it into a club song, eliminating its message and lyrics, therefore anesthetizing its original intent and message.
Fellini in his film announced the death of religion – the image of the sea monster at the end of the movie symbolized the death of the church. In Sorrentino’s vision Jep, the film’s protagonist, mentions a sea monster of his own. What follows is a shot of a half-submerged cruise ship. So what has actually died? A cruise ship is wealth and industry embodied. What about religion? Well, this movie offers no short amount of spiritual imageries. Nuns and bishops run rampant (literally and metaphorically), churches, hymns, crosses are all-surrounding. Religion, or at least the public morality that is so tied into Italian culture and mentality, has succeeded by entering every space permitted. Nothing has changed.
Women haven’t changed either, nor their place. The ridiculous amounts of female nudity in the movie (hopefully) have exacerbating effects. Props and nothing else, all this would be troubling message-wise if it weren’t for a small line of dialogue at the beginning of the film that prepares the viewer for what is to come. When asked why she no longer wants to continue in her acting career, a young woman declares that female roles in Italian cinema are inexistent, and that they are shallow and one-dimensional. The movie proves the assessment correct. In a country where half naked dancing women are used as mere sexual objects to be looked at even on news shows the film sheds a light on the excessive power the male-gaze exerts on women, still known in the country as the weaker sex.
What is the future of Italy? It’s bleak, that is the one certainty. At a dinner party a woman laments that the country has done nothing but provide for the youth their entire lives, she then asks how she (Italy) is repaid. Young people are abandoning her in droves, mostly to the United States. Italy is, in the character’s mind, the thankless provider taken for granted. The movie, though, seems to indicate that fault does not lie with the youths who are leaving, but with these rich people who do nothing. They have ensured wealth and power for themselves, a life of leisure and status but that nobody is looking at any longer. Even the paparazzi that were everywhere in Fellini’s movie (which actually created the name for the photographers) or in Roman Holiday are gone as well. There is one photographer in the entire film and his picture is attributed more to habit than to a demand for such pictures.
It would seem, then, that this great beauty is, in fact, only skin deep.