“Do you know why I eat only roots? Because roots are important,” explains a 104-year-old nun to the greying author and playboy Jep Gambardella, main character of Paolo Sorrentino’s recent Oscar winner, The Great Beauty. Forty years ago Gambardella wrote the roman à clef of his generation. Then he gave up writing to become the king of the beautiful people. Every night, on his huge rooftop terrace overlooking the Colosseum, Gambardella holds court for Rome’s literati, impoverished aristocrats, glamorous kids, reality stars and gluttonous prelates from the nearby Vatican City. If there’s one thing that Gambardella and his entourage sorely lack it is roots. Among the remnants of more than 2,000 years of cultural history, they hover in an impenetrable party bubble, as out of touch with the past as with the present. They might as well have existed in a parallel universe.
The Great Beauty is obviously a satire of Italian neoliberalism, or the Berlusconi era as it is often referred to after the media mogul and politician who has long been the face of the dictatorship of superficiality, where all culture has become commercialised and politics merely another form of entertainment. In an interview included in the press kit Sorrentino himself talks about a “culture of escapism” and Silvio Berlusconi’s habit of keeping parliament waiting for him while he is occupied doing “pointless, frivolous things.” Like a skilful magician who tricks us into looking in the wrong direction at the crucial moment, Berlusconi has steered people’s focus away from important issues to trivialities.
Stylistically Sorrentino’s film swings between emotionally charged burlesque, à la Fellini, and a cooler, intellectually ironic tone that makes me think more of Peter Greenaway. Both are, to be sure, excellent sources of inspiration. The satire is, admittedly, at times bitingly grotesque. As when a little girl is forced by her art-dealing parents to perform full-body action painting for their guests during a garden party. Sobbing and covered in paint from top to toe she throws herself repeatedly at a huge canvas. “Think about your career. Europe’s leading gallery owners are all here,” her parents exhort her. Or when a botox doctor, receiving his patients in a renaissance palazzo, is treated as were he the reincarnation of Michelangelo.
The great problem with The Great Beauty, however, is that Sorrentino himself ends up doing a Berlusconi on us. He points our attention away from neoliberalism’s basic zones of conflict, towards the merely trivial. In Sorrentino’s Rome we see no trace of the real victims of neoliberalism, nor of the intensified process of exploitation that feeds the around the clock party of Gambardella & Co. The working class is largely invisible. So are the unemployed, the 35-year-olds living with their parents because they can’t afford a home of their own, the actually homeless, the undocumented immigrant street vendors, the beggars. Even the obligatory waiters and waitresses are more invisible than usual. Instead Sorrentino gives us a Rome so spruced up, so beautifully lit, so softly caressed by the camera, that large sections of the film have the feel of a commercial produced by the tourist office – and a particularly glossy one at that.
Ignoring the class struggle – the almost one-sided war on the working class that defines post-1970s politics – we get the story of neoliberalism as a struggle for the soul of the bourgeoisie, a struggle in which Jep Gambardella and his likes ultimately are shown to be victims more than anything else – victims of indolence and wealth that break down the psychological fibre of their class. Tellingly, the film is populated with multiple versions of the old “poor little rich girl”-stereotype; children and young people whose misery ultimately seems to be derived from their wealth. Thus, Sorrentino feeds the absurd myth that life is particularly difficult for those who grow up economically privileged, a notion that flies in the face of the scientific fact that higher class position statistically means a longer and, physically as well as mentally, healthier life (despite the greater risk for empathy deficiency). The one and only reason for the indestructibility of this myth is obviously that some miserable people have access to a far louder voice than others.
In sharp contrast to the unhappiness of the wealthy, the few and fragmentary working or lower middle class characters in the film are presented as almost uniformly harmonious, apparently because, thanks to their relative poverty, they have the ability to appreciate the “simple pleasures” in life. Thus Jep Gambardella’s (Latin American?) maid is really nothing else than a version of Mammy in Gone With the Wind. And when Gambardella, for plot reasons I won’t go into here, makes a brief visit to the Spartan home of an elderly couple, and asks them what their plans are for the night, the man answers – in a tone of voice indicating that he has seen the light – that his wife will finish her ironing, then they will have a glass of wine and watch some television. Hallelujah, how blessed is the simplicity of the poor!
Ultimately The Great Beauty confirms what has been apparent already in the director’s earlier films (not least in the equally overrated Il Divo) – that Paolo Sorrentino, the Neapolitan son of a banker, is as blinkered as his characters. He cannot see outside of his class, cannot understand it in relation to other classes. And this lack of context – this rootlessness – spills over to the aesthetics as well. The film ends up loose and warped. Satire gives place to sentimentality. Federico Fellini and Peter Greenaway cohabit uncomfortably. And the social criticism disappears behind the glossy pictures of a tourist brochure.
Daniel Lindvall is editor-in-chief of Film International.
The Great Beauty was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection.