I happened across The Great Beauty in about January 2015. I was house-sitting at my uncles and aunts house way out in the sticks in a time when I was still homeless and unemployed and, seemingly, few prospects. Being there was like a holiday for me. I had a good-sized and fully appointed house to myself for six weeks. I had space at least, and a decent bed and time to set aside some of the fears that haunted me. By day I was writing my first book and watering the tomatoes and walking the dogs and cooking – I had a full-sized kitchen at my disposal also. By night I would sit on the comfy lounge with a dog to either side of me and explore what there was to watch on TV, or on the hard-drive of movies I took with me. That’s how I found this film. One balmy summer’s night, I was flicking between channels when I came across it. I stayed to watch for a few minutes, then kept watching. By the end of the movie, I could feel it inside me. It made me think and wonder. It made me remember myself. I went to bed, knowing not all was done.
It’s an Italian movie about a man who wrote a great and famous novel when he was young and not written anything since. He’s now 65, an elegant, sophisticated, witty man about town. His friends are intellectuals and artists and each night they gather at different places for different events and party until the early hours of the morning. It’s a hedonistic lifestyle full of intellectual discourse and sensual delights. Jep epitomises it. He’s charming and fun and touches lightly wherever he goes. (A generation before it’s a role that Marcello Mastroianni would have played with detached aplomb). As it is, the role is very well inhabited by Toni Servillo.
On the surface, it’s hard to know quite why I was so drawn to the story. It’s a great movie, no doubt, intelligent and vivid (it recalls Fellini in style), with great set-pieces and photography in general, and brilliant acting (and the musical selections are perfect and haunting). But I had a personal response to this, which is rare. I found something in it that seemed relevant to my existence – it seems unlikely.
When I first saw it, I had nothing, and the future looked bleak. But there I was, sitting in a house on the outskirts of Melbourne, kangaroos hopping by beyond the back fence, watching the story of rich and decadent Italians in the eternal city, Rome. Jep, the protagonist, I could relate to in some undefined way, but even so, his life appeared the polar opposite of my own, and even his style – some of which felt familiar – was ultimately different.
I watched the movie again last night and felt much as I did before though – thankfully – my circumstances are much improved from that time. I watched, trying to understand what it was that resonated in me. At one stage Jep says that his was always going to be a life of sensibility. No matter how much he engaged in the elegant, sometimes decadent, lifestyle he was part of, there was always something in him that was an observer. He had reacted to that with a dry and sometimes biting wit, as if to put distance between what he felt and what he wanted to portray. He had achieved early success and made himself light since as if it was an aberration. He skipped along, enjoying the fruit his wealth and celebrity gave him, but ultimately he can’t ignore that sensibility – the knowingness I’ve written of before.
This is the movie. He’s living this enjoyable life when he hears that one of his first loves from many years before has passed away. It affects him deeply and sets him off as he continues his life of episodic sensuality. He looks at the things he never had, the things he shunned but might have had if things had been different. He searches for some meaning amid the great ‘blah, blah, blah’, and returns again and again in his mind to the scene of his very first love.
In short, he undergoes a journey. The pristine and engaging facade he’s lived behind develops cracks. He finds himself wrought by unexpected emotion. The old, almost cynical formulas fail him. He wants a meaning to it. He searches for it outside, then turns back within.
This is probably something many of us can relate to. It may even be a condition of life – certainly for those who have any sensibility. And I think that’s what I recognised both before and now. My circumstances were just that – circumstances. My self, my sensibility if you like, was contained within me like a bubble independent of the circumstances I was in. I still thought, deeply, still wondered and felt, still questioned. What had become lightness in Jep had become heavier in me, but it was just a different way of responding to similar things. And I recognised his hedonism, knowing it well, drawn to the more simple life of sensation – would be if I could be. Though my path has taken me somewhere very different, I could appreciate his dandy-ism as self-expression and relate to his love of women – fleeting though it ever is. And the images of him wandering the empty streets of Rome in the early hours and as dawn breaks – that’s straight out of something I wrote 20 years ago. I know it.
So, what does it mean? I think we see beneath the surface reality and respond to what lies beneath. I think, like Jep, I’ve hidden behind a way of being for years. Many of us have. Ultimately, they’re the things we are. In our case, it’s a sensibility we can’t escape, and it’s bittersweet.