La Grande Bellezza (2013) is first and foremost honest to its title. It is beautiful. Really, really beautiful. It’s bathed in gorgeous imagery of Rome, which is displayed so gloriously that someone literally dies when he tries to capture the beauty on photograph at the start of the film.
Actually, let’s focus for a moment on that opening scene. The movie starts with images on top of Gianicolo hill in Rome, a place of architectural beauty, peace and quiet, with the most beautiful view of the whole city. A female choir sings gently as the sun washes over the serene images.
It might be the idealized image of the authentic classical Rome, but it is also tainted by less alluring images of modern society. An overweight, sweaty man washes himself in the fountain, a homeless or hungover person sleeps on a bench, and tourists photograph the site half-interested as they are addressed by a tour-lady. The moment one tourist leaves the group and attempts to witness the beauty of Rome by himself, he falls down and apparently dies from a heart-attack.
Then we hear a scream. But not from a passerby but from a glamorous party girl who dances ecstatically during a loud and extravagant party at night. BAM! We’re in the ‘other side’ of Rome. Loud, vulgar, narcissistic and indeed extravagant.
Two sides of beauty
La Grande Bellezza mixes, matches and juxtaposes these two sides of rome, two versions of her ‘beauty’. Both the serene, romantic beauty and the other-the-top hedonistic beauty. Through this juxtaposition, explored by its main protagonist Jep, the film tries to explore the question of what beauty is, in its essence. Where do we find true beauty, and do we find happiness through it.
We, as viewers, actually find beauty all throughout the film, in the smallest of scenes, through the eyes of Jep. Rome seems drenched with it. When Jeb sees a nun’s legs as she is plucking apples from a tree, when he strolls alongside the canal in the early morning, and when a beautiful woman passes him by in silence at night, the beauty is ever present.
But even though it’s all around Jep, the movie suggests that the beauty doesn’t reach Jep, not at his core. He can taste it, but he doesn’t consume it. For much of the film Jep seems a hollow man. Yes, he wears a constant sardonic smile, but his eyes drift, he can’t hide his melancholy. Beauty is all around him but it doesn’t enter him.
Eventually the film moves towards an sense of explanation for Jep’s distance from the beauty around him. As Jep hears the news that his childhood first-love passed away, her death spurs off memories of her inside Jep, and it’s through these memories that he slowly begins to sense where happiness is to be found by him.
In a way, the movie concludes by recognizing the beauty which can be found in every aspect of life. But that beauty is by definition fleeting, unable to be captured. “At the end of it, there is death”, Jep recognizes in the final minutes. Maybe that’s the significance of the dying tourist at the start of the film. He tried to capture beauty, and it overtook him. It literally couldn’t be captured.
Similarly, Jep’s memory of his childhood love, a lingering image of them standing on the cliff at full moon, is also about this inability to grasp true beauty. The girl avoids his kiss, but later on exposes her breasts to him. As the light from a nearby lighthouse rhythmically illuminates her, Jep sees the beauty. But he doesn’t touch it.
At a certain point Jep discovers that his first love actually could have been his true love, as she apparently never stopped loving him until her death (thus relates her later husband to Jep). He saw it, but he could not contain it, he didn’t capture it.
To me, that summarizes the theme of La Grande Bellezza, the appreciation of the fleeting beauty of life, which can never be captured and kept. As Jep comes to peace with the realization that beauty is everywhere, but always just out of reach, the film ends.
Finding the beauty of the One Shot
Now, as we begin to close in on my One Shot, you might say I have to decide which side of beauty I choose to pick my favorite shot from. Do I see the most beautiful cinematography in the serene, romantic stillness of the classical beauty? Or do I see it in the superficial and narcissistic beauty of Rome’s nightlife?
It’s funny how cinematography can work in distancing yourself from the reality. In real life, that which is ugly, looks ugly. And that which is beautiful, looks beautiful. Whereas in films, ugly things can look beautiful, just as beautiful things can look ugly. Now don’t subject this statement to scrutiny because I’m sure exceptions can be found, but the idea is that cinematography can work as a subjective translator of reality, and through its translation may arise a beauty which isn’t present in its captured subject.
An easy example would be The Thin Red Line(1998). It shows horrific scenes of violence and grueling combat, yet we appreciate the cinematographic beauty with which the film captures these horrors. As a camera glides over the grassy hills of Guadalcanal during a battle, it feels like a gorgeous dreamscape, while at the same time we are witnessing the deaths of hundreds of young men.
Similarly, many of the decadent scenes in La Grande Bellezza appear to be ugly on the surface -leering men, surgically enhanced females, egotistical behaviour, et cetera-, yet these scenes are captured beautifully, with inventive camera movement, framing and lighting.
In this blog, I have nothing to say about the true nature of beauty in real life, but I can express a definition of beauty in cinema. And to me; as far as cinematography goes, the beautification of an ugly subject often results in a more interesting filmic image.
When La Grande Bellezza ends on that moonlit cliff, I can imagine few things as beautiful as witnessing your first love, just beyond arms’ reach. But from a cinematographic point of view, the image is as simplistic as it is beautiful.
So I lean towards the other end of beauty, when it comes to cinematography, especially in the case of La Grande Bellezza. Which leads me to the party scene I talked about at the outset; the scene in which we are introduced to Jep.
For almost two minutes the scene bombards us with shot after ecstatic shot of partying people. Set to loud dance music, we are almost drowned in images of glorious hedonism and extravagant pleasure. Then suddenly; the music stops, and a gentle synthesizer tune starts up. We are transported to a room, looking out over the party, where a tattooed stripper performs.
Suddenly the party seems distant and we barely hear the crowd-noises. The stripper is performing in solitude and silence, the sounds of her boots moving are the loudest we hear.
First of all I love how director Paolo Sorrentino uses this shock-cut to near silence in the middle of this loud partyscene. In a matter of seconds we switch from extravagant pleasures to a surreal emptiness that feels both weird and hollow. It is a first example of how Sorrentino subverts the romanticized image of the Italian jetset.
Adding to that, I love how the stripper is placed in the frame. We look over her shoulder, towards the crowd. But actually, her own reflection is most prominent in the image. She’s not only dancing by herself, but it seems she is dancing for herself, dancing to the images of her own sexual reflection.
So besides the expression of emptiness, this shot also beautifully suggests the narcissism which the film goes on to criticize.
Above all; the shot is just beautiful to look at; with the dark red hair of the woman contrasting against the blue background and the focus on the hazy reflection making the stripper more alluring in her movements.
So in a film overflowing with beauty, it’s this beautiful shot of an empty, sad, and in a way ugly subject, that touches me and interests me above all the other shots.
In real life I’d choose a cliff under a full moon with a lovers’ promise any time. But when I travel through the world of cinematography I’d rather sit inside a stripper-booth, silently observing the narcissism of a decadent lifestyle, through the eyes of a great cinematographer.