Cardinal sins in beautiful Rome


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 his own face every day since he was a child.

Yet it is often the human moments that are the most arresting. Jep is oblivious to the nubile young bodies at a strip club where he visits an old friend, but is stopped in his tracks by the vision of an older, elegantly dressed woman whom he passes on a half-lit stair. He is a likeable but not a kind man: at one party he brutally disparages the life and livelihood of a close acquaintance, in a misguided attempt to disillusion her. But elsewhere, he reconciles with a rival, reconnects with an old friend, and forms a bond with the man's daughter (Ferilli), in whom he sees a possible companion on his quest for deeper meaning beyond superficial beauty.

In fact the city around him is pervasively beautiful, a truth that is captured exquisitely by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, and by Lele Marchitelli's achingly bittersweet score. Only in his twilight years is the libertine Jep starting to realise it. Perhaps the great beauty he seeks is in the accumulation of all of these smaller beauties. 

Jep's journey culminates in encounters with two contrasted religious figures. One is a cardinal (Herlitzka) touted to be the next pope; the other a celebrated, ancient nun, dubbed 'the Saint' (Merli), who is now being trafficked like a living artifact by a smarmy, salesman-like minder. The cardinal is senseless to Jep's enquiries about faith, and prone to missing ordinary human connections in the midst of his politicking and self-obsession.

If this is an unflattering reflection of institutional Catholicism, it finds its counterpoint in the Saint, whose humility reveals to Jep the possibility of transcendence. In 'There She Goes My Beautiful World', Cave's epiphany is that 'You weren't much of a muse, but then, I weren't much of a poet'. Jep, too, may discover that recognising one's insurmountable, human limitations is as liberating as it is agonising.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino, Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli



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Existing comments

What a great review. Can't wait to see this film. I first visited Rome at age 22.
Pam | 29 January 2014

It is a movie that has to be seen twice (at least)... At an initial viewing, one is bombarded by discordant perspectives - a Japanese tourist dies on the Janiculum near Garibaldi's Statue, a choir sings over the ripples of a medieval fountain, and so on... The movie is filled with these discordant yet essential cameos to present a contemporary Rome that fuses the ancient, medieval and modern together to present the jigsaw puzzle that is Rome. Into this maelstrom inserted are the key players - so well described within the review. It is only on a second viewing that they emerge fully, against the confronting and confusing scenarios that have moulded them. Their realities are made brittle by the events that have defined Rome and their lives within it. The contrasting minor players, represented by the self-absorbed cardinal (who rather should have been a cook given his penchant for the cuisinary art) and the "saintly nun" (used and abused by a mercenary and sycophantic system) are just two elements within the the schizophrenic panoply that is Rome. A brilliant film - five stars - but be prepared to see it twice to really get the most out of it.
Yuri Koszarycz | 30 January 2014

A nice review, Tim. What are we to make of the Saint's final words to Jep about roots? She famously eats them, and hints mysteriously to Jep about the central vitality of roots. Jep learns, curiously, that the Saint is a long-time admirer of his only book, written many years ago. He learns also that a woman he loved before he came to Rome has just died and revealed in her diary that Jep was the one great love of her life. Was she the muse behind his book? Was she the Great Beauty that he let slip from his life to be replaced by the superficial splendour of Rome? Whatever the answer, the film's final scene has Jep leaving Rome and returning belatedly to his roots,.
paulb | 30 January 2014

Yuri, good to hear from you in this forum. Fact is stranger than fiction.The Cardinals that you and Ray helped family members, Jane and me, with others to oppose in Rome foe their party in human trafficking, including "novice trading" as warned against recently by Pope Francis, were also opposed by an old nun who sat down on the back steps of the HV 10th Anniversary meeting next to Jane and me in 1978 in Melbourne. University. Mother Teresa, this old nun, is reported to have not prayed for a religious vocation for the child of a mother at this meeting as requested by this mother but instead is reported to have told this mother that she would pray for God's will for that child to be done. Oliver Clark
Oliver Clark | 30 January 2014

A superb film. Now, where is our Sorrentino to hold the mirror up to, say, Sydney 2014 and all it contains?
Susan | 31 January 2014


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