He wanders the streets of an imaginary Rome, by day by night, eyes and ears alert, mind stretched taut like a membrane, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), the jaded sophisticate, the has-been writer, the art critic, the sensitive vagabond of Rome’s millennial Dolce Vita, capturing impressions, recording images (smiling children in a nunnery, a passing actress’ glance, wanderers along the Tiber’s banks), arresting sounds, immersed in the presence of the city as any artist must be, to lead us along the ancient streets and through palatial chambers with his voice – scornful, distant, literary, intimate – a voice which shares with us its passions, memories, ironies in its cinematic and literary peregrinations through the Eternal City.
The impressions he gathers (the film we see) are perhaps the second novel Jep Gambardella always lacked the courage to pen; vignettes and lost phrases of a vast labyrinthine notebook, traces of a potential oeuvre never to be written, lost as he was sucked into the vortex in his quest for the Great Beauty.
Although Jep Gambardella lives the beautiful life, surrounded by the botoxed wealthy, the cocaine-snorting art lovers, the capon-lined well-tailored remnants of high society, his existence is a lie (as he readily admits) as fake as the CGed giraffe which the magician disappears in a sleight of cinema (a simple cut) rather than of hand. Yet, from the false emerges a beauty too, from the trick a miracle: of fantasy, of voyage, of cinema; a great beauty which is then perhaps the glory of seeing, the magnificence of the female body, the pleasure of thought, the vices of failed bacchants dancing drugged and ecstatic over the ruins of their beloved city.
With a critical eye, Jep Gambardella leads us (as Virgil leads Dante?) through Rome’s art scene (a hammer and sickle shaved into pubic hair, a child who tantrums paint onto a canvas, a knife-thrower who silhouettes his victims with thrown blades, an Abramović-like artist who smashes her head into the Roman aqueduct), yet his critical eye is contemptlessly vested with a regal tolerance worthy of a saint or novelist who understands that mankind must be allowed everything, above all their weaknesses, for that is the very core of man’s nature. Although Jep Gambardella spares these artists no critique, he condones the moments of their creation, their all too human motivations, just as he condones Talia Concept, the aqueduct artist for her inner force. And perhaps even, art becomes unnecessary for feeling is enough, as Jeb says of himself at the film’s start, perhaps his destiny was not that of art but “that of sensitivity.” Perhaps. But perhaps too, this lie which allows Jeb to excuse himself for never having been brave enough to be a better person than he was, for never having sat down to write that second novel, the hardest of any writer’s, is the lie he must tell himself in order to continue to exist in the world, material and decadent.
Along with his infinite catholic indulgence for people’s falseness, failures, weaknesses Jep Gambardella draws his own all-too human pleasure from the imagery of decadence: Serena Grandi’s massive painted glorious form, reminiscent of Fellini’s Saraghina; the Costa Concordia lying wrecked off the coast of Giglio Porto; drugged ecstatic celebrants writhing to techno before the backdrop of history. Yet, as Rome’s jetsetters grind life under their stilettos, suck it through their noses, swallow it down in crystal glasses Jep Gambardella the sensitive potential author, is witness to its absurdities as well as its beauties.
Jaded as Jep Gambardella must be, having made it to his 65th birthday immersed in little more than ephemeral experience, his incrusted irony is but a shield against tragic and melancholic experience. At the core of his worn-down cynicism lies the pain of delicate youth, who lost true love and with it his illusions. Buried deep within him there is a nuclear core hidden beneath the marble structure built to protect this adolescent love, which is the allegory and source of the Grande Bellazza – the beauty of woman which is at least his comfort, even if not his salvation. And it is this single memory preserved pure which maintains too Jep Gambardella’s distant yet tender view upon the world. For he has made every compromise, every error: he has sacrificed love for seduction, art for society, literature for dandyism; he has traded the wealth of faith for the counterfeit currencies of adulthood. And yet the imagined love of this woman-child who mysteriously left him in the incomprehension of youth yet lifelong continued to love him remained, echoed through time, traversed the body to sensitize him to the superficial to transform his melancholic solitary withdrawal after the hopelessness of love’s loss into the source of his sympathy, curiosity, thought.
Jep Gambardella could never draw out that second novel from the wells of life because he was too busy soaking himself in them. For him, like for any cineaste, each moment’s value is in its presence, in a camera’s gesture, a word’s texture, a light’s shading, a body’s motion – perceptive peregrinations through thought, memory, hope, which dispense with the causal chain to privilege the image of beauty, whose powers reside outside physical reality and transforms the novel that might have been written into a film that might have been seen.
For what Jep Gambardella, a true Italian, a true Catholic, a true Fellini-ist, wishes more than all else is to seek the perfect joining of spirit’s depth with image’s surface. His Catholic love of materiality and yearning for spirituality are expressions of the age-old faith in their conjoining through the church rituals to which cinema is so indebted. And if the superficial image is the accoutrement of vanity which must with time wither, die and fade away, then eternity is contain inside the voice of God which speaks to us through the church’s most glorious creation, its music (Pärt, Tavener, Martynov).
The constant tension between music and image is the cinematic parallel (its ritual?) of the tension between the profane and the spiritual, and in the body of an aged saintess, 104 years old, whom Jep Gambardella meets is a reflection of the paradox of existence, which must be spiritual and material simultaneously, and his quest for the great beauty is that of understanding how to live in this eternally corrupt and eternally beautiful world. And perhaps the answer (if there is to be one) is that of the fantasy, of the voyage – symbolized in the decrepit nun who is the spiritually perfect image of ugliness, joyfully invoking a gaggle of pink flamingoes who soar away into the glorious setting sun over the Eternal’s City greatest of monuments.
And perhaps by the film’s end, in “the silence and the sentiments” Jep Gambardella can fulfill a certain desire for spirituality without taking it too seriously, even if his quest is the most serious of all, for the voyage to the end of the night ends only in death, even if death is always preceded by life, and life is, when we are lucky, a hint of what we glimpse when we watch cinema.