Thursday, February 06, 2014

Reflections on Italy ~ Regarding La Grande Bellezza

Forgive me, dear readers. I have been in deep-brain storming meetings off and on for several weeks and my head is bursting with new and with change. It’s all leading somewhere good, but for now I must diverge. And that is deep into this little blog, where I can write and think about things that aren’t very important, but which matter to me.

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?

I’d been to parties in Rome like that. I recognized that scene. It was stimulating and frightening to me at the time. It was unlike anything I had ever imagined in Italy. But it had to be part of what makes up Italy. It just wasn’t the Italy I had in mind.

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.

I’ve learned there are scenarios in Italian society when one must act in a certain way. Assume a particular role. And play it as well as one can. But that isn’t who one is. It’s a persona.

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.

No, Jep Gambardella also reminded me of a friend and contemporary of my father. He lived that life when he was in Rome in the 1960’s. I daresay his life might have even been more exciting than Jeps. But the pattern was recognizable. A soul, searching, sometimes barely scratching the surface, but tapping into a vital vein of society and culture.

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.

The film aims to underscore Jeps disappointment, emphasizing loves lost, opportunities unfulfilled, moments squandered. It would be very easy to think this movie was just about one man, one life. After thinking about it for several weeks though, something still gnawed on me. Was this about Jep Gambardella’s life? My Life? My father’s friend, his life? Or was it a pattern?

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.

I know this – The ideas and emotions I gleaned from La Grande Bellezza are not the best Italy or anyone of us can be. It might be where we landed, for now. But if I’ve learned anything these past few weeks, in the brain-storms, this is not where we will stay. Italy, and we, are better than that. Or so I hope.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


SilvanaMondo said...

Nice reflections on La Grande Bellezza. I think that the feelings you so eloquently put down are exactly what many of us who have seen the film have shared too..una tristezza that is not really defined just with the passing of age (ours, Jep's, Itlay's)but a whole way of life..and certainly the 'squandering' of it. I hope there is much more to come, not just from Itlay - but from everywhere. I loved this film, I could watch it again. It touched me very deeply because it is also the Italy I know, from the past - in the present. The delicate moments and the embarrassments implied in the glances and the shrugs...those however are universally human and Sorrentino is genius in this rendering. Buona Giornata

SPQR said...

So what did you think of the movie?

Alfonso Cevola said...

I saw it twice. once on the big screen and once on the small screen . I didnt like it at first , but it grew on me once i realized what the film maker seemed to be doing, or rather that my perceptions changed and the film took on a greater meaning than just the story. I think Jep is a grande character

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