In January, while in New York, I went to the big screen and viewed Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza. Hailed as one of the best movies to come out of Italy in years, I mixed expectation with trepidation. I wanted the film to be good, even great. I’m not sure I wanted it to be greater than Fellini, Antonioni or Pasolini.
Five minutes into the film, the party scene disturbed me. I sat way in front; it was just the movie and me. It was too much. But what was bothering me, I wondered? Was it repulsion? Or was it recognition?
It was like the time I was a waiter in a very fancy restaurant in a very conservative part of Southern California. The people I waited on, I didn’t recognize any of them in the little world I had imagined life was. It shook me. It also reinforced who I was and who I wanted to be.
Likewise, the party scene, in experience and on the big screen, was for me an observable moment. The man behind the camera. That was me. Not the playboy, not Jep Gambardella.
The Italy I have come to know loves her people to embrace personae, in situations, in the various strata of society. When I was in Sicily last summer, in Palermo, I saw an old woman, appearing to be a beggar, scavenging through the trash in Piazza Beati Paoli. I had to remind myself this was 2013, not 1971. Was poverty still here in the ancient heart of Palermo? Was this an apparition? What did it mean?
La Grande Bellezza might, on first viewing, seem to be an account of the life of a man whose vacuous pursuits, aided by his status of celebrity, play out on the screen, ambling all the while over the Eternal City. It brought to mind, more than once, Jay McInerney, and the role he plays in New York. But that’s too easy of a comparison.
This goes beyond wine, beyond the mundane activities we do daily. It addresses the reason we are here on this shiny little planet. And while La Grande Bellezza aims to tell the story of an aging storyteller who had his Bright Lights, Big City moment when he was very young, and which formed the basis of activity for the next 40 years, in Rome, I can’t help but think it digs deeper.
In many ways, this film, La Grande Bellezza, mirrors Italy so well, right now. That might be an onerous task to accept this is what the filmmaker intended.
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