The Closure of the Eternal City

Roma aeterna. The eternal Rome. So much history, so much life, so much death. Whoever says, New York is the City that never sleeps, has clearly not been to Rome… or simply narrows the meaning of sleeping.

Six months. Six months did I live and study Italian in Rome. Six months did I roam its museums, its parks, streets, markets, and churches (more than 900 are there). Listened to the chatter (il chiacchiericcio) of its students, shop owners, bus passengers, and tourists. A wonderfully unique time, without a doubt. Yet a tense time as well. Increasingly the pressure in my mind and on my heart “to make the most of it”. Considering Rome’s historical, ecclesiastical, political and, last but surely not least, artistic and cultural importance, my relaxed natural curiosity turned quickly into a sheer panting after the city’s glories, the city’s treasures, the city’s character. “Don’t miss a thing! Now you have the chance to see R.O.M.E!” No day was long enough to see enough. There was so much to discover, to learn, to admire, to reflect on, to soak in. And after a short while a subtle but stable feeling of guilt became part of the package.

The nostalgia that crept over me whenever I thought back on that time surpassed each “typical” nostalgia that I normally have for the past. This nostalgia was more. A Life-nostalgia. Having become for me a parable for life in general, these six months in Rome opened up thought perspectives and questions on all areas of being, mostly not offering an accompanying answer. These six months were ten years ago. It needed a movie to find an ounce of closure of these six months. Not that I sought closure. Yet I didn’t avoid it either. Flying back from Europe to the “new world”, at a height of 11 km, I watched a portrait of this 22 centuries-old city – and a portrait of life in this old world of ours. The movie “La grande bellezza” (The Great Beauty; 2013) by Paolo Sorrentino is spectacularly beautiful – and painful. May I offer these four points as starters?

1) Rome as a Parable. This film is about Rome – and about much more than just Rome. At first glance one may assume that we could substitute Rome with New York, Rio, or Tokyo. Simply other megacities. But Rome is not just a city. Never was. For over 2,000 years Rome was not just a place. It was a parable. It stood for an amalgam of various concepts, hopes, and desires. Success. Safety. Prosperity. Dominion. Force. Politics. War. Salvation. Beauty. Power. Aspects that provide the stones from which we build our lives. This movie is about the seeking of life, this panting for beauty, the desire to feel alive. The film disarmingly addresses this longing innate in (may I dare to use an absolute?) all of us humans. We are looking for something. Depending on what we already have and are, we most often desire the remainder of what we think is essential for a successful life. In the protagonist’s case this something is beauty. And yes, this quest alone could have been placed in any other city as well. Because at first glance Rome just offers the local and aesthetic background for this search. Yet, if one goes deeper – into the city and into the movie – they will discover why New York, Rio, or Tokyo could never have been the setting for this movie.

2) Beauty and Nostalgia. Second, “La grande bellezza” portrays lives that try to stretch their heads out of the finiteness of … life. Stretching itself in order to see beauty and thus making the best of the time at hand. Having the premise that life’s meaning lies in finding, enjoying, and preserving beauty (and having the financial means to do so), the protagonist(s) of “La grande bellezza” pant through the high life of Italy’s capital. That city, however, lives from its past. Almost everything that makes Rome grand, beautiful, or at least exciting has to do with its past: streets, buildings, literature, art, the church. In the portrait of Jep Gambardella as well as of the other persons in the film, one main aspect shines through all: nostalgia. The yearning for life with the head turned backwards. In his final monologue Jep goes back to his first girlfriend, to a place and time he sentimentally associates with beauty. This thread can be followed throughout the film. Or, as one reviewer of the movie wrote: “The nostalgia is the only available device when one doesn’t believe in future!” And the future does look grim. Jep’s life is surrounded by frustrations, loss of control, aging (almost all of his companions are beyond their life’s peak), and death (at least one suicide among other demises appear in the movie). Not to speak about Jep’s final monologue, in which death plays a main role. Future? What do you mean?

3) Sensibility. Third, this film portrays an homage. The characters in the movie render homage to the exact thing that aids to their despair: sensibility. Sensibility, together with its brother sensitivity, is the basic capability to recognize and appreciate beauty at all. With death, however, swinging over them like the sword of Damocles, a beauty-focused sensibility is just half as nice, and since it always yearns for more, it is never truly satisfied nor satisfying. Yet their lives – and this movie – celebrate their sensibility, their experiences with beauty of all sorts, without being silent on life’s ugliness and confusion this same sensibility makes them aware of. In that sense the movie is a sincere depiction of reality. It’s music and visual intensity however lift it from the mere level of report to an already festive stage: The movie celebrates beauty! This film is an explosion for the (audio & visual) senses of the audience. And thus includes the spectator in the beauty-seeking circle of Jep and his friends. And be it only for 2 hours and 22 minutes.

4) City vs. Story. Fourth, directly spoken about, yet to a big degree only subtly woven into the story, is Jep’s search for story. He wants to write a new novel. And is closer to it at the end of the plot than he ever was. Could it be that the concept of story poses itself as a suggestion, an alternative, for looking at life and at the world? An alternative to beauty and thus an alternative to the city, which serves as an “incarnation” of beauty in this film? What is it about stories that is so different than places, buildings, galleries?

These four aspects, among many others, were major factors during and after my stay in Rome. And I wasn’t even fully aware of it on a conscious level until I saw “La grande bellezza”. Just seeing some of these thoughts and sentiments of mine on the screen (even on a ridiculously tiny airplane screen) had something homey – and something “therapeutical”. Not only did it bring a bit of closure to my feelings regarding this time and this city, but it also gave me the opportunity to ask, what beauty is. Depending on its definition – and considering that I am indeed a sensitive/vulnerable lover of beauty –  I can ask myself again whether the quest for beauty is my major goal in life. Whether it should be. Whether, in the face of death, it could ever keep what it promises.

British playwright William Nicholson put some comforting truth into the great movie “Shadowlands” (1993). There it’s said: “We read to know we’re not alone.” In my case with “La grande bellezza” I can say: I watched to know that I am not alone.

Right now I’m looking forward to see “La grande bellezza” again, this time on a BIG screen! In the meantime I enjoy the film score. Sorrentino’s masterpiece has one of the finest musical selections I’ve ever heard in a movie. The music choice for the film’s final monologue was surely no coincidence. “The Lamb” by John Tavener, with the lyrics by William Blake. Unmistakably pointing to creator and creature. And to salvation through the lamb. But why salvation? Well, after taking a fearless and candid look inside and out, the question may be: what else, if not salvation?


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