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The Great Beauty” may show Rome’s beauty but it is hardly great. PDF Print E-mail
Mar 14, 2014 at 11:49 AM

ImageWhen the film “La Grande Bellezza” opened here in Rome in spring, 2013, it hardly made a splash. The reviews were mixed and some people, me included, hadn’t even heard of it. I was asked about it by a friend from New York and had to confess my ignorance. I don’t go to the cinema all that often but aside from that, there hadn’t been any real talk about the film or at least not enough for it to have come to my attention.

Then early this year it started winning prizes in the US and the UK where, to my mind, stereotypical ideas of Italy continue to prevail, along with understandable nostalgia for a real cinematic genius, Federico Fellini, whose like will probably never again be seen. So the film gathered motion and it quickly became clear that because of a mistaken mindset about Italy by many US and UK critics the film would get the Oscar for best foreign film of 2013. By this time, I had seen it and to be honest it was hate at first sight. Why? Because aside from the starring role given to some of the gorgeous monuments, buildings, landscapes and statues of the incomparably beautiful city where I have spent the last several decades of my life, it is a film about nothing. Or rather about a silly man who made his name with a book he wrote when he was 30-40 years younger and since then has done nothing but spend money on parties to which he invites would-be intellectuals and misfits, spend money and wander around Rome at night, everywhere bumping into people he knows – countesses, drunkards with daughters who think being a striptease artist is the maximum, his best friend who is a failing actor, an odd little man who claims to have the keys to most of the great palaces of Rome (and by the way, the ones shown are almost all museums not private dwellings), a secretive neighbor who turns out to be a criminal in hiding and so on and so forth. At 65, the protagonist is starting to become aware of his own mortality and feels sad about friends who die and what he himself will soon lose. Big deal! This is the kind of thing most people who reach 65 start thinking. But it doesn’t seem to occur to him that he has wasted his life with a stupid frivolous lifestyle. So the film has no dénouement and in effect is about nothing, rien, nada, except, perhaps, him finding some comfort in the timeless beauty of the Eternal City.

I apologize but my imagination is not touched when I know I am being manipulated; something you never felt with the best of Fellini. This is a largely non-existent Rome of white-garbed nuns and novices (haven’t seen any of those lately), an ancient Mother Teresa knock-off supposedly vowed to poverty who allows herself to be feted by the protagonist’s rich friends and who is awakened the next morning by a flock of flamingos (flamingos, on a Roman rooftop?) whom she blows away with what might be her last breath. And I wish the director had cut out the cheap anti-clericalism, including a scene which has a church prelate (I can’t remember if it was a cardinal or a bishop) dining, and plying with champagne,  a giggling nun in a (real) elegant Roman restaurant. Oh, give me a break. I am not Catholic and think I have a pretty unjaded view – light and shadows of the Vatican. But I can assure you that you would NEVER see anything of this sort in Rome. NEVER.

The movie was shown on Italian state tv a couple of weeks ago so many normal Italians who had never seen it finally got a chance to view it and from what I hear from friends, either fell asleep or are not worrying that they weren’t intelligent enough to understand the film. I feel like reassuring them all. Don’t worry about it. There was nothing to understand and the best title for the film would have been La Grande Nulla. The big nothing.

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