Fellini, Sorrentino and the Roman Nobility

By Alex Bower

La Grande Bellezza, dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2013. Runtime: 2 hours, 22 minutes

In the 1950s and ’60s, a trend to stage extended scenes of wild and weird parties became fashionable in Italian cinema. Directors exhibited a consortium of mismatched, obscure people swaying to the rhythms of the time. In these striking spectacles, an audience was confronted with innovative ways of communicating social, sexual and religious conflicts.

Frederico Fellini was a master of the party scene. For a Catholic boy, Fellini took great delight in recreating transgressive, pagan excess. La Dolce Vita (1960) is one long party in which he bombards his audience with a sequence of photogenic explosions. That is not to say there is no great substance behind these pretty pictures; Fellini’s films are so rich with ideas (and remarkably puritanical), that I occasionally have an urge to never drink, dance or copulate again.

La Grande Bellezza (2013) is considered in many ways a sequel to La Dolce Vita. Paolo Sorrentino imitated much of Fellini’s style and ideas and, like Fellini, he engages with contemporary Italian high society through of a series of lavish party scenes. They both straddle the line between pure spectacle and substantial meaning. After three hours of unrelated episodes and fragmented narrative, these films ask not necessarily to be conventionally understood or rationalised but experienced.

The hero of La Dolce Vita is gossip columnist Marcello. He chronicles “the sweet life” of Roman high society, drifting from party to party, reveling in aimless decadence. In La Grande Bellezza, the wayward hero Jep (a writer who published his first and only novella at the age of twenty) has for the last forty five years drifted under the shadow of the Colosseum. We adore Marcello and Jep and hold them in contempt. They stand above and yet are trapped in a grotesque world of extravagant, empty parties.

For decades, Fellini’s films were seen as extravagant, empty of meaning and, worst of all, pretentious. Critics argued the hero Marcello embodied the director’s own failings: full of grand gestures but ultimately shallow. How wrong these critics were. La Dolce Vita and La Grande Bellezza provoke feelings of frustration, confusion, interest and enjoyment. And in my view, that’s a great combination.

What sticks out, however, are not the stories of Marcello and Jep but rather the portrayal of the old Roman nobility. The Roman nobility has existed for centuries and lies at the heart of the eternal city but their wealth and status has diminished since the 19th century as industrialists and new money accumulated power. Through drawn out party scenes, Fellini and Sorrentino ridicule and undermine the old ruling class. They are contemptible, absurd and selfish. They, like the ‘nouveau rich’, are caught in an amoral world where the only code for life is the pursuit of fun. Yet Fellini and Sorrentino also conjure up profound and surprisingly sympathetic reflections on this tortured group of people. In La Dolce Vita, they are incarcerated in vast, crumbling palaces. In La Grande Bellezza, the diminished Roman nobility are dispossessed of all wealth and yet are trapped by the memory of the past.

In La Dolce Vita we encounter the Roman nobility of the 1950s as, one night, Marcello ends up in Odescalchi Castle at Basano de Sutri; a palace owned by a family with two Popes as direct ancestors. During the party, described by the youngest son of three, as equivalent to a “first class funeral”, the camera wanders round the room dropping in on conversations as the guests are watched over by formidable family portraits. It is wickedly funny. One man turns to an English aristocrat, who is surrounded by her scrawny terriers and asks, “Do you ever bath those dogs?”. Meanwhile the youngest son drags a table of drinks by a lead across the floor, turns to Marcello and says, “Let us climb our genealogical tree”. In a drunken daze, the group goes to a run-down villa at the end of the garden. They drink, fornicate and dress up in the amour of their ancestors.

At the first the tone is light and celebratory and the music that accompanies these scenes reflects this. But the night wears on and Nico Rota’s exquisite score suggests transgression, confusion and frustration. Mack the Knife, blues and the La Dolce Vita theme are merged as the score fragments. As the disheveled group emerges into the morning, we hear a mournful song: Notturno. They look forlorn in the daylight. We can only pity a group of people forever shackled to the magnificent buildings around them, uneasily caught between two worlds, the old and the new.

In La Dolce Vita, the old Roman nobility are prisoners to history and to the physical legacy their ancestors left behind. Fifty years on, in the 21st century, Sorrentino is replying to Fellini and reflecting on a fascinating shift in Italian society. Sorrentino’s aristocrats still just about exist but are dispossessed. The likes of Berlusconi have consolidated all the money and power.

In a few short sections, we meet an old aristocratic couple living in a dank basement with peeling wallpaper, their clothes hanging on washing lines around them. In an amusing scene, Jep calls and asks if he can pay for the old couple’s attendance at a dinner party filled with prestigious intellectual and religious leaders. Jep, ever the society man, needs a couple of aristocrats to boost his social credentials. Later that night, the countess does not follow her husband down to the basement flat. She enters a palace. The palace is now a museum. She walks on varnished wooden floors, through the lines of stacked chairs and past magnificent paintings. She arrives in a room with a cot in the middle, illuminated by a single light. The voice of an audio guide describes the cot’s history. The old countess looks on longingly. It is clear that she slept in the cot as a child and that the palace was once her home.

In La Grande Bellezza, the old Roman nobility have been forced to give up their palaces and live trapped, not by physical objects but by the memory of family and its possessions. The countess is a sympathetic, albeit pitiful, character clinging to the past. In a film dominated by Jep’s nostalgia for youth and his first love, Sorrentino provides an unexpected and poignant reflection on the nostalgia of the old ruling class.

Pertinently, Fellini and Sorrentino’s films demonstrate that they too share the old nobility’s love for the Eternal City and are fixated by it. Fellini captures the glory of the Via Venento and the Fonatana de Trevi (the fountain under which Marcello almost kisses Anita Ekberg). He contrasts ancient Rome to the city’s modern, dehumanised suburbs. Meanwhile Sorrentino wanders, dream like, through empty streets absorbing all of Rome’s pleasures. Rome consoles and traps not only the characters but the directors themselves.

In 1959, at the time of release, Fellini’s Dolce Vita provoked controversy and anger across Italy. The aristocracy and Catholic Church amongst others saw the film as divisive and disrespectful.  At the premiere in Milan, Fellini was spat at “in the name of the fatherland”. The audience, filled with the great and good of Italian society, screamed, “disgraceful, disgraceful!”. In Rome, the screening was received in silence and afterwards during a packed debate, a fight interrupted proceedings and armed police intervened. The communists applauded the film for revealing the repulsive excess of the ruling classes. Fellini was misunderstood by all and most significantly, by the nobility. He was ridiculing them and their vapid parties. But ultimately he understood them better than they did themselves: a dying breed imprisoned by their history.

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