The opening scene of Paolo Sorrentino’s Academy Award-winning film, La Grande Bellezza, lets us know exactly what we’re in for: a collective attack of Stendhal syndrome. A tourist beholds Rome from above, is overcome by its great beauty, and then promptly dies on the spot. This might sound like Italian-style operatic melodrama to some, but don’t be too sure. In this American’s mind, it’s entirely possible. This city has caused my heart to skip a beat more than once over the years.
Looking to recreate the same emotion, if not the final death blow, I joined our host for the weekend, Baglioni Regina Hotel, for their “La Grande Bellezza Experience,” The Great Beauty Tour of Rome. We were treated like high-society VIPs for a day, escorted around to the various filming locations by two guides and a professional driver. Just to make sure that we’d be able to connect the sites of the tour with the scenes of the movie, they sent a copy of the DVD to our rooms the night before, so I was able to watch it for a second time and refresh my memory.
But of course Rome can’t actually speak for itself, so Sorrentino introduces us to Jep Gambardella, an aging novelist with a chronic case of writer’s block who becomes our guide through the upscale sleaze of the modern city—much the same way that Federico Fellini followed Marcello around Rome 55 years ago in La Dolce Vita.
The comparisons between the two films began immediately after last year’s release of La Grande Bellezza. For one thing, the Fellini-esque moments in this new film are impossible to miss. Just when you think you’re starting to sense the slightest suggestion of a plot, you’re abruptly yanked inside one of Sorrentino’s muddled dreams—a trick that Fellini enjoyed playing on his audience, as well.
Some of the more surreal moments include a plastic surgeon’s studio that’s part theater of the absurd, part carnival freak show. A giraffe wanders among the Baths of Caracalla as a magician attempts to make it disappear; the feisty dwarf who happens to be Jep’s editor and confidant; a flock of pink flamingos who halt their migration to rest on Jep’s balcony overlooking the Coliseum. A mystic nun that bears a striking resemblance to Mother Teresa falls asleep on Jep’s bedroom floor (because she’s unaccustomed to a mattress, apparently), startling him in the middle of the night. She asks our protagonist the pointed question that everybody wants to know the answer to: “Why didn’t you ever write a second novel?”
He responds, “I was looking for the great beauty. But I never found it.”
The result of all of these fragmented vignettes is hallucinogenic; so discordant that it breaks your concentration, makes you forget all about story and plot, and begs you to just admire the seductive visuals.
The Great Beauty Tour
During our tour, we were able to actually visit many of these sites, standing both in Jep’s shoes, as well as Sorrentino’s. We stood in Piazza Garibaldi as the cannone fired off at 12:00 sharp. We strolled the Old Appian Way, alongside ancient Roman aqueducts, the scene of the performance artist who strips naked (revealing that she’s “red” in every sense of the word—I’d show a screenshot, but I’m trying to avoid the NC-17 rating for my blog) then rams head first into the stone wall. We drank from the same fountain as Jep, as he watched a convent of little girls chase after a young nun in the labyrinthine garden. We dined in high-society style at the Ristorante Brunello, indulging in a feast worthy of Jep’s crowd. Finally, we went up to the Roman Penthouse Suite for a sunset view of Rome’s Great Beauty. It was too early for a rave party or conga line, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the possibilities in such swanky digs. Here some pictures from our day:
One can get used to this type of treatment. In fact, I forgive Jep for finding hard to escape this lifestyle long enough to write his second novel. Rome has a way of enticing you, of distracting you, of hypnotizing you with its many charms.
However, Rome is also a city of contrasts, and to truly love it is to accept both the good and the bad. A pile of uncollected garbage sits right next to one of Bernini’s fountains. Walking by a bakery you smell fresh baked cornetti; a moment later, you round the corner and take in a mouthful of diesel exhaust from a tour bus.
That is Rome, at once appealing and appalling, and what you see very much depends on what you’re looking for. I’m surprised that Jep didn’t realize this sooner.
But, as he says, “It’s all settled beneath the chitter-chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.”