As different on a narrative and other levels as they are, two of Paolo Sorrentino’s most well-known films, his Academy Award winning (for Best Foreign Language Picture) The Great Beauty (2013) and Il Divo (2008) comprise a complementary vision. Early in the first film 65-year-old Jeb Gambardella is seen living it up in style at a party held to commemorate his birthday. He is no stranger to this life, having embraced it since his arrival in Rome as a young man. He made up his mind then, we are told, to out bon vivant the best of Rome high society, to make or break parties according to his whim.
Were there a measure of world weariness in such a free wheeling, self-indulgent man it would hardly be surprising given the years that have passed. Thoughts and remembrances of what he has forsaken in life – most notably his writing ambitions and a lost love – compound Jeb’s ennui. The early promise he showed as a novelist has never been realised. He bankrolls his lavish lifestyle with cultural critiques for a magazine run by his friend and foil the dwarf Dadina.
But he is a man capable of genuine feeling. His sorrow is heartfelt when he learns of the death of the one who ought by rights to have been the love of his life. Further salt is rubbed in the wound on hearing, from her distraught widowed husband, that the deceased never stopped considering him her true love though she went on to wed another.
Death is pervasive throughout The Great Beauty. The film commences with the sudden death of a camera toting Japanese tourist. The maudlin son of one of Jeb’s closest friends meets an inevitable early end. The ageing stripper Ramona, a woman with whom he has a short-term affair, also dies in the course of the story. As to why Jeb watched his potential fade to nothing … he was, he says, searching for a beauty he never found. Ironically enough beauty surrounds him in the Eternal City though living there entails putting up with an existence in ‘provincial, shitty Italy.’ This is a pressing contradiction that blinds him to what might otherwise be seen.
Huge disappointment, with Rome, with Italy, informs many of the characters in the film. Jeb’s loyal friend Romano returns to his home town fed up. Another of his circle, the oft-published but opportunist Stefania, tries to put on a brave face. But she has little success. Jeb and others see through her and relish reminding her of latent inconsistencies in her life and compromised art.
The capital city and country depicted here is not far removed in time from the earlier incarnation focussed upon in the director’s Il Divo (The Divine). The film is based on the life of the enigmatic 7-time prime minister of Italy Guilio Andreotti, a political leader notorious for alleged ties to the Mafia. The narrative deals with his seventh election to the post, his failed bid for the presidency through to the Tangentopoli bribe scandal and his 1995 trial. Andreotti is implicated in the murders of journalists, bankers, police and his one-time colleague Aldo Moro, the former prime minister kidnapped by the Red Brigade in 1978 and executed after 55 days in captivity. It is a bloody legacy but Andreotti’s conviction is ultimately overturned.
The cynical derision toward Italy on display in The Great Beauty is not overtly politically motivated. But it is hard to divorce it from the tumultuous events that have scorched the land in the decades since the ignominious World War Two defeat. Jeb’s ‘who could bother to care less about anything’ attitude is more easily understood when one considers the broader context. Just as out of Guilio Andreotti arose the corrupt Silvio Berlusconi, the failed writer and his cohorts are the logical offspring of a nation where impunity has been allowed to run riot at the highest levels of government.
At least until he begins to show signs of a sort of coming to terms, Jeb’s hands are as tied as Andreotti’s, whose principal justification for his alleged condoning of murder and other misdeeds resides in the vagaries incumbent on high office. In their relentless quests for truth and nothing but, Moro and kindred were ingenuous, asserts the 7-time prime minister. A lasting, greater good, stability in a fractious nation, cannot be achieved without bloodshed.
Paolo Sorrentino is blessed with an astute cinematic eye and raises important issues in both films. They can be viewed as completely separate works and enjoyed in their own right. But taken together each helps to illuminate and add depth to the other. It is hard to imagine The Great Beauty without the equally accomplished, eye opening Il Divo.