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Cardinal sins in beautiful Rome

  • 30 January 2014

The Great Beauty (MA). Director: Paolo Sorrentino. Starring: Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli, Roberto Herlitzka, Giusi Merli. 144 minutes

Talk about your genius envy: when Nick Cave gets writers block, this is what happens.

In that stunning 2004 song 'There She Goes my Beautiful World', the angsty songsmith Cave raises nature's beauty, rages against his mute muse, and rattles off a litany of writers whose works he admires, yet whose achievements came amid hardships he can only imagine: 'John Wilmott penned his poetry riddled with the pox ... St John of the Cross did his best stuff imprisoned in a box.' Cave must surely be aware that in the process of lamenting his own relative writer's block, he has managed to write one hell of a good song.

Nonetheless the song comes to mind when reflecting upon Italian filmmaker Sorrentino's Golden Globe winning masterpiece The Great Beauty. Jep (Servillo), the film's aging hero, might quietly sympathise with Cave's rage against frustrated creativity. He once wrote a famous novel but, during the decades since, he has all but ceased to write, except as a sometimes columnist for a Roman arts and culture magazine.

Cave has his 'beautiful world', and Jep has his beautiful Rome. The film follows him as he moves about the city, encountering its stunning streetscapes and ancient ruins, galleries and other cultural spaces. He is lately steeped in the hedonistic lifestyle of Rome's social elite, and the film catalogues the excesses of his peers to sometimes shocking effect. During one elaborate soiree, the hosts' young daughter is forced to perform a stunning and distubring artistic display in which she roars and slams tins of paint against a massive canvas. Jep is unmoved by the child's tears, rationalising that her art will earn her millions.

The film features several thrilling party sequences, where the camera picks out smaller human moments amid the colour and noise and general debauchery. We first encounter Jep at such a party, celebrating his 65th birthday. It is perhaps his last great party; the next day he hears some shocking news that forces him to stop and take stock, and to search beautiful Rome for the 'great beauty' he has somehow missed out on.

During his wanderings, Jep is privy to innumerable moments of wonder, small and large: he takes an after-hours tour of a darkened museum; an illusionist friend disappears a giraffe before his very eyes; he visits a photographic exhibition in which the artist has photographed