The story starts at the 65th birthday party of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), our narrator and navigator. Just like everyone else, he is dancing and flirting, wagging his hands and making eyes at women many years younger than him who wear far fewer pieces of clothing than him. He is dressed in a suit, per usual, and lights his cigarettes slowly, looking at the lights. A woman is dancing naked behind a piece of glass across the alley. Later, Jep says, “After I turned 65, I learned I had to stop doing things that I didn’t want to do.” This was a lesson he learned late, or not at all; his behavior never changes, and he keeps procrastinating on living while ever fervently theorizing about what it is to be alive.
Jep is a writer for a prominent newspaper. He’s talked about in the gossip columns. He’s friends with everyone. He aspired to be a success, meaning, as he says, he didn’t just want to attend all the right parties, but he wanted to have the power to turn them into failures. He is who he aspired to be, I suppose; he has that power. He wrote a novel 40 years ago, The Human Apparatus. Shortly after his birthday party, he tells his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) that he is thinking of taking up writing again — that is, not just writing for the paper, but really writing. This, maybe, is one of the things that he wants to do, that he realizes he can’t continue to procrastinate on any longer. But he doesn’t stop partying, and when, once, he is asked why he never wrote another novel, he says it’s because he stayed out too late, because Rome was too seductive, too distracting.
But The Great Beauty isn’t about Jep, really. It’s not about Rome, either. It’s not that Rome is too seductive or too distracting, but that the world is. This movie thinks it is about these people and this place, but it isn’t at all. It’s not about anything specific. Jep wonders a couple of times if he could definitively write the novel about nothing, and this might be the movie adaptation — nothing and everything being neighbors that live across a very thin line. It is a series of vignettes, sometimes played out in one shot, sometimes throughout an entire half hour, with recurring characters and also existing on their own, seen through keyholes and open windows, brief glances. My favorite is early: two college kids who met ten days ago and haven’t stopped kissing since. Another, a parallel with Jep: a young girl born to art gallery owners who wants to become a veterinarian when she grows up but paints at her parent’s begging, earning them riches with her work. Her parents drag her out in front of a crowd at a party with a large canvas and she throws a tantrum with paint, tossing it at the canvas and screaming as she rolls herself in it. “That girl is crying,” someone says. “Don’t be ridiculous,” says Jep. “She makes millions.”
The characters — pretentious and haughty, irritating, confounding — are, all of them, fully-formed beings. The movie is fascinated with them, not angry; they’ve thought their way back to living decadently, through the validation that a life without pleasure is a life not worth living. They are embarrassed, shameful, elated, proud. In one scene, a woman, a contemporary of Jep’s, is touting herself as both a woman and a mother, having lived a life full of good work and principles, and that Jep is instead lazy, the author of one poor novel. Ruthlessly, Jep cuts her down, listing her faults, ending by telling her that she’s right to insult his only novel, to call him lazy, but that she is as flawed as him, that everyone is. She storms out. Later, the two are dancing, and he asks, “Have we made love?” She says that they haven’t. “Well, at least we have one more good thing to do together.” These people are rich with pathos and venom. I couldn’t get enough of listening to them talk.
The movie is told in pieces, like memories, snippets of reasoning and forgetfulness. When asked by Sister Maria, a 104-year-old-nun, one final time, why he never wrote another novel, he says, “I was looking for the great beauty.” He saw it once, aware and staring, watching it flicker. He wouldn’t let himself see it again. Earlier, he wonders out loud if it’s better to be bad in bed, because you enjoy it more; earlier, too, a friend of his wonders what’s wrong with nostalgia, as the past is all that’s left for those who don’t have hope for the future. Throughout, Romano is writing a play, and Jep gets a theater owner to let him use the theater to perform it for three nights. After the first night, Romano goes to Jep and says that he’s leaving Rome, that he won’t be performing for the other two nights. Romano expected there would be some result of him having poured his heart into this play and then unleashing it to the world; much to his disappointment, there was not, and he couldn’t take it. Jep was scared of that.
The parade of images and colors and words in The Great Beauty is the kind of thing that inspires useless film criticism: “a visual feast” one person might say, and “dazzling,” another. Quotes for the poster. It is born of passion, and must have taken a lot of time and many scraps of little notes to assemble. It is among us — and among its references, which are direct and numerous, most notably to La Dolce Vita — but also separate. It earns its own place, which many movies, even ones that draw from no source material other than themselves, fail to do. It is about everything, or at least many things. It is about, possibly most prominently, figuring out, or failing to figure out, what those things are that you decide you want to be doing, and doing everything else anyway.