I found these notes I once wrote about Paolo Sorrentino’s film La Grande Bellezza among files I thought lost. Once planned for an expanded review, they are now snippets worthy only of a blog post.
‘The film’s opening sequence sacralises silence and introduces the penalty for blasphemy in the modern, secular world. Sorrentino opens the film with a Moses-moment: laying down the law for the community. An aesthetic judgment. Ignorance of beauty can be tolerated, but intrusion is desacralizing. The tourist faints upon taking a picture of the mystical choir, the first victim of the double sin of ignorance and trespass. The scene is foundational and constitutive of the whole film, which tracks a kind of biblical journey out of the Garden and back in. An alternative title could be: “Silence lost. Silence regained”
Jep’s relation with his playwright friend Romano and with Stefania embodies the conflictual dialogue between modernity and postmodernity. Jep’s postmodern self dissolves the narratives, certainties and ambitions of the other two characters. He rises against their heroism, romanticism, coherent self-narrative, only to expose their fragility, contradictions, holding them up to ridicule. He is ruthless with Stefania because of her militancy and tender with the other guy [name needed] because of his naivety. Gep’s deconstructive ability can destroy but also reform. He is a figure of tragic, an icon of meaninglessness.
Jep is truly the embodiment of postmodernism. He can speak everyone’s idiom and dialect, but none really belong to him. He is beyond their stories, his story is a non-narrative. He is both nostalgic and childishly jovial, and both at once. He is open to both contingency and eternity, but chooses neither. He criticizes and resigns himself, but he doesn’t dare because he doesn’t believe. He remains beyond belief and unbelief, in the dark woods of indecision. He is sick unto death.
This is also a film about the metaphysics of the stare. Everyone stares at someone sooner or later – a stare of accountability, a stare of despair, a stare of disbelief, but a stare nonetheless. What is this film about? About appearances and illusions: illusions about life, love, morality; about the solidity of human narratives, ambitions and associations. In fine, illusions about art – Ramona is fooled by the trompe l’oeil architecture in the garden. Tutto e solo un trucco.
In a way, the film is apophatic. Insofar as it attempts to say something, it uses the idiom of silence, denial, and contradiction. Who are the heroes of this anti-story? The dwarf, the failed novelist, the corrupt politician, the pimp’s repentant daughter, the key-bearer who mediates but never enjoys (he is trustworthy but unfulfilled, virtuous but unhappy), the overworked yet failed playwright, the count and countess forced to hire out their titles for special events. The film needs to be mannerist in the extreme because art mediates what cannot be said – it shows what cannot be revealed, fails, but there is jubilation in failure. Why does everything have to be decadent?
Nothing can redeem, not even death. Jep plays his usual card at being the best at everything, even at “doing funerals”, commiserating with the bereaved, but that is ultimately illusory, counterfeit. He is an artist, an artisan, the last artisan. He can be anything, anyone, give lessons in everything only because his inner hollowness grants him the void of liberty to be anything.
We are meant to walk through ruins all our lives. The ruins of our lives, of our former selves. What remains of everything? Only traces, archeological sites, sparse stones, here and there, shadows and fragments. The best dance is that which doesn’t go anywhere – it reflects the self-enclosed self, closed to the beyond: So’ belli i trenini delle feste, so’ belli perchè non vanno da nessuna parte! There is also an appearance of becoming, exemplified in the artist’s collage of portraits, but that too is doomed to a non-reading: the scene ends abruptly, like the end of a disconnected chapter. Life is a failed attempt at life. Jep wishes to ask the cardinal his only serious question, but the cardinal is distracted by something trivial and never gets to answer. We don’t even know what the question really was. Jep gets to ask a question, but he revises it. One of the explorations of silence, of the non-said – it’s not that the non-said wants to be non-said, but that it fails to become.
Why didn’t you write another book? Cercavo il senso ma non l’ho trovato.
L’imbarrazzo dello stare al mondo– the throwness-in-the-world, In-der-Welt sein.
What is the trick, il trucco? The trick is the story, our ever-shifting, fractal-like self-narratives which do nothing but hide, deceive, mask and distract from the underlying coordinates of existence, sentiment, fear.’