At the start of the last week of February, the Italian film The Great Beauty made its debut in Williamstown at Images Cinema. The Great Beauty is a film that will be marked in history for its significant contribution to the creation of the newest genre of our times: existential science fiction. The film, co-written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, tells the story of an aging socialite Jep Gambardella, played by Tony Servillo and his ruminations on his 65th birthday.
Existential science fiction goes where science fiction hasn’t gone yet – it goes further into the realms of futuristic pessimism, accepting the inevitable advances in civilisation that will eventually create a future in which the meaning of emotion has been totally annihilated, with no hope for change. If there has been one film that has accurately approximated the essence of what nihilism could mean for the future of the human experience, it is most certainly The Great Beauty.
The most striking aspect of the film is its portrayal of the Dionysian future. The characters live in a world of excessive decadence, comfort and gratification – essentially it is The Great Gatsby expanded to a societal level. The viewer is left unsure as to whether the world of the film is dystopian or utopian – but the reality is that it is neither. It is only a world of total neutrality. The concept of purpose has been eradicated in a society devoid of necessities – because the status quo is exactly what humanity should be, there is no possibility of change.
At first, the lives of the characters seem ideal. They live, eternally youthful in a hedonistic world of culture and art. No one seems to have any duties – the world simply functions and continues, as it should. Within 20 minutes, the film seems to lose any sense of purpose. The viewer gets the sense that the film could end any time since none of the events in film followed any sort of plot. This is precisely where the genius of the film lies – it shows every viewer’s fantasy, while removing any sense of emotion toward it. Viewers cannot desire the lifestyle, but they cannot hate it either.
This creates an arresting sense of timelessness for both the protagonist and the viewers of the film. Gambardella has the perfect life but he is stuck in a static state of profound boredom – his existence is meaningless, but too comfortable to complain about. Human emotion is temporal, but essentially meaningless because the entire construct of society is based around making everyone satisfied. Ultimately though, this satisfaction is only neutrality.
The cinematography of the film plays an interesting role in its greatness. Visually, the film is sublime, constituted entirely by the vision of ultimate beauty – both the magnificence of human and natural creation. Everything that is beautiful is shown in this film – the beauty of landscapes, humans, cities and creation. But this only adds to the sense of neutrality – it creates the sense that everything in the world is expected to be magnificently beautiful. Beauty is no longer a rare or special thing – it just exists.
This film was ultimately depressing. It shows exactly what eternal satisfaction could be like, but it is impossible to criticize the world of the film, because it is so reasonably functional. Suddenly comparing the benefits of a world with eternal complications to the ideal world seems reasonable – but no amount of reason seems to detract from the fact that the world of the film is inevitable. The film shows the paramount of an ideal human civilization, and this future seems satisfactory, but altogether dreary and devoid of any meaning.