The Ugly Truth About ‘The Great Beauty’

The identification and the self-recognition of the audience with the main character of a drama is a process described, established and accepted since Aristotle. The spectator, through the combination of such modes of persuasion, that Aristotle classified as “ethos” (characters), “pathos” (emotions) and “logos” (discourses), is inducted to believe that he/she shares with the protagonist the same emotions, situations and thoughts.

I felt strange when an Italian friend told me that he identified with the main character of Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty”, the winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. At least because my friend doesn’t live in a gorgeous apartment in front of the Colosseo, and unlike Jep, he has to work ten to twelve hours every day in order to dedicate his free time to his artistic talent.

The plot of the film concerns an aging socialite, Jep Gambardella, who wrote a novel in his twenties and has retired into a comfortable life writing cultural columns and throwing parties in Rome with his aristocratic and naive friends. He is surrounded by his counterparts for whom sense of aesthetics are defined by the opulence, vanity and arrogance of their own world. Nothing exists outside this world. It is thanks to the efforts of the common people – Italians as well as the first and second generation migrants, actually the main productive and interesting part of Italian society – that these kind of “intellectuals” are allowed to continue their apathetic life. Even the city of Rome is completely removed, with the exception of its ruins of the past and the decadence of its present, which suddenly emerge as the great beauty.

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Jep Gambardella’s character is not just a fruit of Sorrentino’s fantasy. Any aspiring writers, journalists or artists in Italy have to deal with those kinds of people. Figures like “Jep” are not as passive as they are described in the film; they rule Italian culture. The emptiness of their thoughts is just a behavior that authorizes them to criticize everything around them. While the young talents have to work hard even without being paid in the hope of an opportunity that will never arrive, people such as Jep denigrate any attempts to bring something new in the Italian cultural panorama. In fact any newness may break their privilege. Their authority is so strong that they are established as successful even if their value hangs to a remote and forgotten work. It doesn’t matter if that work was worthy.

Francesco Merlo is one of the most influential journalists of the newspaper La Repubblica. His fame arose when he wrote an op-ed five days before the 2001 G8 meeting in Genoa inciting the policemen to use truncheons more against the protesters. During that meeting, Carlo Giuliani, a young activist, was killed and more than 400 protesters were injured.

After the Academy Award was given to Sorrentino’s movie, Merlo wrote an article titled “The Great Ugliness”. He imagines walking along the streets as a true Jep Gambardella and compares the imaginary Rome of Sorrentino’s movie with the folk Rome of the migrants, the young activists and artists of the social centers. He observes the young people and their culture with disgust and hate. During this walk he discusses with Massimiliano Tonelli, the author of the blog “romafaschifo.com” (Rome is revolting),  where he rages against the graffiti artists and the migrants with the actor Carlo Verdone – who also stars in “The Great Beauty”, as Romano, an aspiring writer and friend of Jep. Their point of view is clear, that the beauty of the Eternal City is represented by its ancient ruins and monuments: “Sorrentino was great,” ends an article, “because he removed all the marks of Rome’s failure, showing that under that there is the great beauty.” In other words, according with the symbiosis between this article and the movie, they – Merlo and his comrades – are the great beauty.

But if the Italian cultural and ruling class still identifies themselves with the ruins of an empire collapsed more than 15 centuries ago, where is the greatness and the beauty? Rather there is just the consideration that, thanks to such intellectuals as Jep and Merlo, despite the efforts of the young generations (which are not considered if not being denigrated) Italy is a country doomed to die in a puddle of great sadness.

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The Ugly Truth About ‘The Great Beauty’

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