I was recently blown away by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. From the huge, decadent party in the opening scenes during which Jep Gambarella, writer and aging roué, is revealed grinning mischieviously at the camera, king of the high life, through the crisis caused by the discovery that the only woman he ever loved, the subject of his first, and only, book, and icon of the eponymous Great Beauty, had spent her life loving him while married to another man, through the various adventures he has, involving celebrity socialites, strip bars owned by old friends, venal clerics and mystical nuns, to the final, mysterious resolution that “it’s all a trick.” It is a wonderful , moving work of art.
People keep asking Jep why he never wrote another novel, but he can’t really answer. He’s been busy being king of the high life, writing a gossipy, funny, ascerbic column for a cool newspaper (the scene where he interviews the avant guard artist is hilarious). But somehow he knows that he has let his talent seep away over the years, never doing anything worthy. He has never again found the Great Beauty he has sought, in spite of living in Rome, surrounded by beauty. Or is he? He is certainly surrounded by modern art, but the transcendent beauty of the past shines through the venal trivia of the contemporary art scene. And he knows it – his interview of a conceptual artist is hilarious, if cruel, and that cruel honesty is frequently on display, cutting through the cant with which he is surrounded. He deploys it at rich, socialite communists, at contemporary artists, at spiritually desiccated priests. He deploys it, indeed, against himself. “The trains at our parties are the best in Rome.” he declares at one or other of his vacuous parties. “They’re the best cause they go nowhere!”
But beyond the nihilism, the “blah, blah, blah” of life, as he puts it at the end of the movie, there is Something Beyond. About which Jep says “I don’t deal with what lies beyond.” Art, he implies, is restricted to surface effects – like making a giraffe disappear in a tired circus act. Art is just a trick, even though it can point at the beyond through “haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.”
“Now there’s something
I want to show you.
This is how it always ends.
But first there was life.
Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah.
It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise.
Silence and sentiment.
Emotion and fear.
The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.
And then the wretched squalor
and miserable humanity.
All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world.
Beyond there is what lies beyond.
I don’t deal with what lies beyond.
Therefore… let this novel begin.
After all… it’s just a trick.
Yes, it’s just a trick.”
Last scene of The Great Beauty
For me, it’s a film about the limitations of art (“it’s all a trick”), and quest for God. A Platonic God Platonic God perhaps, the Form of the Beautiful, rather than the God of orthodox Christian belief, in spite of the religious imagery which permeates the film. It seems like quite an individual quest, (“the alone into the alone” as Plotinus described it.) His half-hearted search for God through art has failed, and all he is left with is the shards of beauty from the past, which are radiant against the trivial present. Time and again modern trivia and ugliness is set in contradistinction to the art of the past. The modern is decadent and oppressive – a little girl, up way past her bedtime, crying as she earns her “millions of dollars” – and Jep steals away with some friends to see the beautiful objects from the past, revealed by a mysterious figure who holds the key – only identified as “a trust worth person”. The artifacts of the past are beautifully lit, jewels in the darkness, to emphasise the difference between them and the trivia with which they are surrounded.
Art, then, seems to have failed for Jep. The individual quest to get to The Great Beauty through the beautiful surfaces has failed, and all the money and art in the world can’t save anyone. During one scene, he says something profoundly true, which spoke to me powefully. He is doing a very bad job of counselling the depressed son of a friend, when he says “things are too complicated to be understood by any one individual.”
This is profoundly different to the world of modern art which prizes individual expression, creativity as the outworking of my own unique genius – Damien Hirst (apparently) saying “it’s never been done before” to justify some tired attempt to shock the bourgeois or other is my own favourite example of that.
What helps Jep is, of all the unlikely things, a nun, back in Rome to receive some honour or other. She is surrounded by promoters, venal people who intend to profit from her naïve-seeming celebrity. She, however, is the real thing. One of the strangest, but most moving, scenes of the film is where she is communing with a flock of flamingos who have mysteriously chosen to roost on Jep’s balconey.
“Roots,”she says to him, “are important.”
I love that it’s someone so physically unappealing (she’s apparently over a hundred), who seems so compromised by her association with the corrupt church, is the one who points him, ultimately, towards God.
That’s where the (perhaps slightly tenuous) link between this film and the idea of the adventure of orthodoxy is for me: the quest for God is not an individualistic one. I’m not good enough, clever enough, observant enough, or, frankly interested enough to do it all by myself. As Jep said, things are too complicated to be understood by any one individual. We need one another to point God out to us. Like the scientific enterprise, spirituality, if it is to be more than a preoccupation with my own internal states, is a team sport.
C.S. Lewis talked about this in Mere Christianity:
If a man once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real… The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based upon what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map (p. 154).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
That’s why I’m not apologetic about embracing the idea of “orthodoxy” – a generous orthodoxy to be sure, not a rigid orthodoxy that’s a straightjacket designed to crush the life out of anyone fool enough to ask questions.
Rather, it’s like the scientific enterprise: we all collaborate in trying to make sense of our data. If Jesus really is “the icon of the invisible God”, really does reveal God to us, is the “word” of God – God’s self-expression, what God has to say, then the task of theology begins. What does it mean? The theology is not itself God – it is trying to understand.
I don’t set myself above those who have come before me, purely because I live in a technological age and can predict the weather using my smart phone and take holidays in Thailand as easily as my ancestors could walk to the next village. The basic facts of human life – love, grief, joy, life, death – remain precisely the same as they always have, and our technological toys make precisely no difference at all to our depth experiences. In fact, if anything, they make it even harder to live fully because living on the surface is so easy. Almost any time a painful thing happens to me, I can whisk it away – from the pain of boredom, solved by fussing with my smartphone, to the pain of injury and ill health, magicked away by modern medicine. There is little incentive for us to dig deeper. In deed our whole culture disapproves of it. Wellbeing is our greatest concern, not self-knowledge.
If Paolo Sorrentino is, ultimately, interested in the God of the philosophers, on whose behalf Socrates said that “the unexamined life is worthless”, then… what? It remains entirely hidden from us amidst the “blah blah blah” humdrum of our life, except as a shadowy, mysterious awareness of the Beyond, of which we need say nothing, because we can say nothing. Orthodoxy is an adventure because it says that, on the contrary, the Beyond has revealed itself to us, and, even more surprisingly, apparently seems to want something from us – it calls us forth. To try to make sense of all the endless stream of sense data that keeps coming at us – love and elephants and pizza and death and so on and on – is hard. Too hard for me to do alone, and a quest not to be undertaken lightly. It disrupts my perfectly sensible, well organised life of work and leisure and the little pleasures and calls me – all of us – to find our lives in relation to the Great Beauty which called Jep Gambarello out from the shallowness of his life, and wants something of all of us.