Scene: A dark, wood-paneled library. A stuffed white bear stands menacingly in the corner behind a substantial mahogany desk, at which the protagonist Jep, a bon vivant who has been writing profiles since he published his only novel 40 years ago, is having a bowl of soup across from his long-time editor, Dadina, a midget. They are talking mostly about his unhappiness. In a conversational lull, she asks, “How’s the soup, little Jep?”
“The soup’s good.” He pauses. “Why did you call me little Jep? No one’s called me that for centuries.”
“Once in a while people need to make their friends feel as they did when they were children.”
Dadina’s words are touching because they feel true: for most of us, childhood represents, if not happiness, then carefreeness, naiveté, wonder. A child’s only duty is to learn about the world—to perceive, absorb, ask—while the adults worry about money and make difficult decisions. Growing up we learn that “love” is synonymous with “taking care of,” and so, as adults, we take care of the people we love. To make someone feel as they did as a child—to help them forget momentarily the stress of the quotidian—is not only an act of love, but a gift. The Great Beauty is such a gift: to watch the film is to be transported back into childhood.
Director Paolo Sorrentino achieves this effect partly through Jep (Toni Servillo), who is himself a big child. As a wealthy, childless playboy with a housekeeper who cooks, cleans, and lovingly scolds him, Jep has escaped the duties and dreariness associated with normal adult life. He stays out drinking until dawn, sleeps into the afternoon, wanders the city, then does it again.
Although Jep turns 65 at the start of the film, The Great Beauty feels like a coming of age story. It pitches like one, too: after learning that his first love has died, Jep is forced to confront his own mortality—and to face reality, finally, as an adult.
But watching a childlike character stumble his way into adulthood is not enough to transport the viewer back to her own childhood. And, indeed, Sorrentino does something more subtle: through stylistic and technical choices, Sorrentino manages to impose the state of being a child on each viewer.
Watching Jep navigate the luxury of his life in Rome, a city whose abundant beauty has made it a symbol of art and culture, with a weariness usually reserved for long subway commutes, would be insufferable if not for the fact that sometimes the surfeit of beauty bores you, too. This movie is too long, you think as you shift in your seat, trying to find a position that will relieve the numbness spreading from your glutes to your thighs. This is not a sophisticated adult affectation of ennui, but a fidgety feeling that reminds you of sitting at adult dinner parties as a six-year-old. Excited at first to be with the adults, their clubby gossip quickly grows dull enough to bore time itself—so slow are the minutes now moving. You would have asked to be excused long ago if not for the fact that every so often the most charming guest at the party catches your eye and winks.
II. Incomprehension of Death
Jep walks up the stairs to his bedroom with a breakfast tray, calling to his lover, Ramona, still in bed. She doesn’t answer. Her eyes remain open, unblinking and motionless, as he stands before her, saying, “Breakfast, Ramona, get up.” Ramona has just told him she is ill. She looks dead, you think. Too many seconds have passed for her to be merely lost in thought. And yet at the moment you accept the terrible truth that she must be dead, she blinks. She smiles. She rolls over onto her back and when Jep asks her if she can see the sea in his ceiling, she says “yes.”
You learn a few scenes later that Ramona is dead. Children under five do not usually understand that death is final and irreversible.
III. Belief without Skepticism
The film does not ask you to suspend disbelief but to believe—as Jep does, as a child would—without skepticism, ironic distance, or fear. Sorrentino’s disconcerting cuts and slippery narrative give the whole film a dreamlike composition; the rules of his world differ from that of ours. Thus stripped from the context of reality, the incredible turns credible. You, too, begin to believe in the waves Jep sees breaking across his ceiling, in the magic of a disappearing giraffe, in a 104-year-old saint and the flamingos that flock around her.
The camera pans slowly across the landscape or zooms in on face, a hand, a flower. Look, it says. Look and be amazed. The camera forces you to pause, to perceive the beauty of a nun picking apples, geese flying overhead, sunrise over Rome, to step out of your habit-dulled senses. Kafka said, “Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty.” The film forces you to see beauty.
Sorrentino’s message, however, if there is one, is not so simple as, “be as a child.” Jep and his friends, who are wealthy enough to be eternally childlike (playful, carefree, and smooth-skinned), come off as caricatures. They have retained all the unpleasantness of childhood (cruelty, name calling, tantrums, selfishness), but none of its pleasures. More importantly, they have lost the ability to wonder, and so, to see beauty. Over the course of the film, Jep, though immature in so many ways, struggles to return to the state of innocence and openness that allowed him to fall in love and write his first novel.
Toward the end of the movie, Jep walks onto his balcony at dawn to find the saint, seated, surrounded by flamingos. The camera zooms in on her wrinkled face as she opens her nearly-toothless mouth to speak:
“So you know why I only eat roots?”
“Because roots are important.”