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The Great Beauty Film Commentary - beware possible spoilers!

Trains that don’t go anywhere ...

La Grande Belleza was hard for me. It’s the first film we’ve been assigned in my contemporary film class that I didn’t fall in love with on some level. My gut reaction to the film the first time around was that there was some profound stuff in it, but that is was achingly long and headache-inducingly convoluted. I just didn't 'get' it. I appreciate it more now, after considering the questions which were posed to us, and reading the articles, interviews, and reviews. There are now things I find interesting about it, and questions it left me, but I’m still not in love with it.

The initial party scene instantly made my mind flashback to Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby party scenes. Though I admit the excess and debauchery were grittier and more palpable in this film. But the break-neck montages almost made me nauseous at times.  And after a certain point the cinematography felt like just another layer of distraction in a film so much about exactly that, distraction. But then, that was probably the point. Life is spinning past Jep from all directions, sometimes even, like the camera, upside down.     
I can appreciate the political and social commentary on modern Italy that is explored by the film. The upper classes, intelligentsia, and hypocrites who call themselves artists, are all vapid and useless in the movie. I adored Atkinson’s description of them as the “chattering leisure class.” And Sorrentino himself links the political to his film by calling Italy “a country where we all fell asleep” and saying “Berlusconi contributed greatly to this culture of distraction from important issues.” Being asleep within one’s life and being distracted by the external are definitely major themes to Jep’s story.
However, I found Jep fundamentally unsympathetic. I couldn’t manage to care much about him, mostly, I think, because he seemed to care so little for anyone around him. He clearly had some kind of haunted attachment to Elisa, the love of his youth. But, he seemed to leave her memory in his youth, until she died. And after learning of her death, he seemed more like he was plagued by questions about why she left him, and the foreshadowing of his own mortality, than he was feeling any actual grief at her loss. His friend’s mentally ill son didn’t seem to engender any connection or sympathy from him either, until the funeral. 

Jep just seemed to be floating through party after party never feeling attachments to anything or anyone for most of the film. And what bothers me most, is that he knew it. He knew all along that he was leading a meaningless life and it never bothered him, until we meet him at 65. And even as he ‘grew’ emotionally within the film, and became aware that his life of endless partying, pointless pondering, and empty commenting were not making him happy - it still seemed like he was focused on only himself.  

Several of the online articles call Jep a “blocked” writer. I find him less blocked and more empty. It’s not so much that he wants to write and can’t figure out what to say. It’s more that he literally has nothing to say, and doesn’t even care for 90% of the movie. He is empty in his soul. The fact that, when plunging back into his hedonistic norms after a nano-second of introspection, he could say the line about the dancing at the party, “We have the best trains – they don’t go anywhere” kind of defines him for me, unfortunately.

But I do still have space for trying to like, or at least understand, Jep. I continue to be mystified by his behavior at the funeral. The fact that, after expressly calling it “immoral” to upstage the family’s grief in his little monologue treatise on funeral etiquette to Ramona; he cried, is just fascinating. I can’t figure out why he did it! But it had to be a genuine feeling. After laying out those rules in his typically cynical ‘been there done that’ style; only actual emotion could have caused that. But what emotion? And for whom? 

And I felt genuinely bad for Jep when he briefly sought spiritual advice from the Cardinal and was ignored and rebuffed. It was as though he finally wanted to understand something deep in his shallow world, and he tried to ask for help from someone who seemingly should have known, but he got nowhere. I also managed sympathy for him when he said to Stefania that “You’re fifty-three with a life in tatters, like the rest of us.” It’s clear in that moment that he knew he was, and they were all, a mess, as people. But he either couldn’t, or still didn’t want to change it.

I also find the commentary in this film on religion, spirituality, and the Catholic church interesting as well. The portrayal of the church proper, through the behavior of the Cardinal, is almost the same as the society as a whole. The rendering is of the church as being vapid and useless, distracted and empty. And yet when The Saint visits, she is completely different. When I first saw her on the screen I wondered where this was going. Just a strangely silent little raisin of a woman, whom everyone spoke about rather than with. I wondered if she was to simply be more odd window-dressing for the film. She seemed like just a prop for quite a while. Then she spoke, and I realized she was the contrast for everyone else in the film who says so much which means so little.

I think Saint Maria was the only honest person in the film. And I think she was the only person, himself included, with whom Jep was honest. I think when he told her that he hadn’t written another book because he couldn’t find 'the great beauty', it was the only time he gave the honest answer to that question. And in contrast to the whole rest of the ‘chattering’ cast of characters, The Saint only spoke to say substantive, if slightly enigmatic things. With two words, “roots matter,” she pulled the scales from Jep’s jaded eyes and he got on a boat. True, Jep is going home to some time and place which exists only in his mind now, but nonetheless he goes. He leaves Rome. He does something, and I think he feels something, for a change. And I suspect, and hope, that Jep can now see 'the great beauty' was, and is, always around, wherever one is.


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