by director/co-writer Paolo Sorrentino
In defiance of universal good sense, I got it into my head that I could make movies, and I started paying increasingly frequent visits to Rome. I was nineteen years old.
One day I walked into a renowned café in the city’s Prati district and began eavesdropping on a mid-level television executive who was boasting to a luscious, chilly young woman from Eastern Europe of his acquaintances and connections at the very highest levels, assuring her that he could snap his fingers and endow her with stardom for the next forty years, a future so bright it would illuminate the airwaves.
The man was trying to blandish her with gelatinous salmon tarts and she was recoiling in fear that they’d smear her immaculate white teeth. The whole time, it was he who gobbled down the famed salmon tarts of the house while hovering around the Junoesque beauty with an attitude that oscillated between shrewd strategy and superstitious hucksterism. In the meantime, he’d polished off the salmon tarts himself; with one hand, he anxiously patted his jacket pocket. I thought to myself: the man is checking to make sure he still has his wallet and his cigarettes. Shifting my vantage point slightly, I navigated around the pair to get a better view of that pocket and make sure of my guess. And that was when I saw something unlike anything I’d expected. Sticking out of the jacket was a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste. Ah, the tawdry, immortal premeditation of certain Italian men. Yet another infinite variant on that faint, heartbreaking shabbiness, so typical of eternal vacationers, that is the essence of the fertile topsoil from which springs the inspiration behind all great Italian cinema.
I think that on that day, subconsciously, the idea first germinated of making, not a movie about Rome, but a movie that contained Rome.
The insistent thought of this film gradually built up over a long, long time, and it gained strength when I came to live in Rome.
Then one day the idea appeared before me, an idea that allowed me to tie the whole thing together: Jep Gambardella, a reporter and writer who, with a pained and cynical worldview, sits and watches as the parade of mankind streams past—empty, decrepit, powerful, and depressing.
As he spends his days among the city’s loveliest monuments and his nights in sophisticated soirees of fakery, chasing after the stifling conviviality of pretentious cocktail parties, making colorless, weary stabs at literary effort in the hopes of finding a thread of meaning, wallowing in desireless sex with the feeling that he’s moving through life as if it were one long, unending summer vacation, what takes shape—in this vast theater of waste and nothingness—is something that can be identified as the sheer appalling effort of living.
Of course, at this point one might well ask: just what is the “great beauty” of the title? Far too easy, far too tempting to reply: Rome. But perhaps, in the final analysis, the great beauty is nothing other than the gigantic effort it takes to live—something that in Rome seems so obscure, slippery, and insidious, precisely because, all too often, life here appears effortless.
(Translated by Antony Shugaar)