The Ennobling and Corrupting Power of Beauty

Peter Corney on The Great Beauty, which explores the emptiness of a hedonistic life in Rome

The great Beauty, Paola Sorrentino’s film about Rome, is both a beautiful and disturbing film. It is a feast for the eyes and ears of the ‘Eternal City’ but raises deep issues about meaning and purpose.

Following the tradition of Federico Fellini’s celebrated film La Dolce Vita (The Good Life), that portrayed Rome’s post war 1950’s revival and the empty hedonism of its upper classes, Sorrentino’s film is set in today’s Italy of Berlusconi, with its political and moral disorder and the spiritual and emotional emptiness of its rich high flyers partying amidst its decaying economy. At one stage Jep, the main character, travels to the coast and stands looking out at the image of the recently capsized Italian cruise ship, still on its side waiting to be re-floated. Is it a symbol of the nation’s condition and perhaps even Europe’s?

As we are taken on a tour through the breathtaking beauty of Rome and its treasures we also follow the nocturnal revelling’s of a group of wealthy decadent friends who party on to an endless but hollow beat of empty pleasure amidst the opulent charm of their city. A neon Martini sign is a constant and appropriate backdrop to their nightly roof top gatherings.

Jep Gambardella is played with elegant sardonic restraint by Toni Servillo. He is a wealthy, aging, jaded writer who has become dissatisfied with his life and his friends and is experiencing an emptiness that begins to overwhelm him. He has never married and learning of the death of his first love brings back the memory of its fragile beauty. He then learns of the tragic suicide of a friend’s troubled son and he begins to ponder the meaning or futility of his own life amidst the aesthetic allure of his city. At one stage he remarks to a friend who has also become disillusioned with the city and his life; “We are all on the brink of despair; all we can do is keep each other company – and joke a little.” The film could be seen as a search for what gives meaning to life and death, especially in the presence of great beauty.

There are also wonderful cameo performances in the film like Jep’s interview with an artist for an article on the arts he is writing for a highbrow magazine. She is an avant-garde performance artist whose bizarre act climaxes in her hurling herself naked head first against a stone wall! The setting is spectacular; the wall is part of the foundations of a great towering ancient Roman aqueduct set in glorious countryside. The irony of this rather bizarre and nihilistic performance being set, once again, against the backdrop of Rome’s “great beauty,” is hard to miss. The further irony is Jep’s interview with the artist. It is an amusing but ruthless exposure of the shallowness and meaninglessness of her fashionable postmodern punk – hip show. Her explanation is as incoherent as the performance, it is without meaning. In a sense it is a less sophisticated version of the lives of Jep and his friends and you get the feeling he knows it.

The film raises fundamental questions about the origin and purpose of ‘great beauty’ in our lives, whether it’s the beauty in art, nature, love or friendship. In the end I think the answer to that question lies in your worldview.

Christians believe great beauty has its origin in God and is a reflection of his glory and beauty and its purpose is to point us to him, “The heavens declare the glory of God…”i , says a biblical psalm. The film wonderfully celebrates beauty but never asks what is its ultimate source.ii

If great beauty doesn’t ennoble you then it may corrupt you. If you do not allow it to take you to its true transcendent source then you can make it the object of your worship, or you turn it into something you can manipulate for your own selfish purposes—human love being an obvious example. Beauty can set you on a journey of longing and desire that you never fully satisfy with this world’s substitutes.

In an interview about the film, Toni Servillo who plays the main character, said; “I think that beauty can injure you to death. It can cause an injury that can never be cured, or it can so traumatise you that it changes your direction.”iii

Rome is also known as ‘The Eternal City’ because the ancient Romans believed that it was a city that would last forever. That title is also sometimes used because its grandeur is said to reflect the true eternal city, the city of God in the Kingdom of heaven. But sadly the Rome of Berlusconi’s Italy is once again a byword for political, moral and spiritual corruption.

Also we should never forget its violent history, expressed in Cowper’s famous line from his poem ‘Boadicea’:

“Rome shall perish,
Write that word in the blood she has spilt.”iv

If both beauty and power have their origins in God, then it makes sense that if their worldly expressions do not lead us back to him they will inevitably corrupt us.

In “The City of God”, written by Augustine after the sacking of Rome by the Vandals in the 5th Century, a book that has greatly influenced Western thought, he reflects on the historical conflict between the city of man and the city of God. The city of God is marked by people who devote themselves to God and his eternal truths, situating earthly pleasures in their proper place as gifts of the creator. The city of man on the other hand consists of people who focus solely on the pleasures of this present but passing world.

According to Augustine, even though the great earthly cities may eventually fall—and Sorrentino’s Rome looks rotten at its core—The City of God, the New Jerusalem, will last forever.v

Peter Corney is an Anglican Church Minister, an author of nine books and a leadership consultant to churches, schools and Christian organisations.

i. See Psalm 19:1, Psalm 29, and Romans 1:20.
ii. See C.S Lewis “The weight of Glory” Collected Essays 2000 Harper.
iii. See The Guardian film review 2013
iv. ‘Boadicea : An ode’ by William Cowper, 18th C.
v. Revelation 21.