By Andrew McGivern (Los Angeles, California)
Jep’s Journey for the Great Strange – An Unconventional Theory
Jep is a man in a time warp, standing still. He lingers, long after he should have gone on. In his youth he wrote a book, and it was great. He was lauded and given opportunity. He took this opportunity and he squandered it. He became, instead of an influential literary nationalist capable of imparting meaning to the living, an exceptional near-royal socialite who is empty and devoid of purpose and fulfillment. The only satisfaction he feels, the indulgence of man’s carnal hungers and thralls, has grown old – as he has grown old – the contentment it brings is temporary, and barely that. He is the heart and soul of every party, but master of none that inspire or matter; his politics are that of the forgotten, and his life is akin to the deceased.
Jep lives in a land of exorbitant luxury and make-believe. He hosts Rome’s most extravagant soirees, and is invited to all the rest. He drifts from day to day, drinking until dawn, and sleeping until noon. He does what he wants, when he wants, to whom he wants – yet he is not happy. He feels “strange” he tells his rascally caretaker as she prepares his daily meals. Most men would feel wonderful, they would feel alive, but most would not have lived the repetitively decadent life Jep has for the past four decades. While there are multitudes of other, better things our hero could do than sit around feeling sorry for himself, the point is well taken. He and his contemporaries have much more behind them than out ahead, and there are regrets. With all the opportunity they had – the money and the connections – and everything at their disposal – they could have done fantastic things, especially working together, and instead they have pilfered the well of the wasted, and now they lie.
Jep searches for the great beauty of his life – of all life – and of Rome, but he never finds either, left to ponder its eternal existence. The story unfolds in soliloquies that drop hints to what the great beauty that seems to elude the films central character actually entails. We believe it may be his first love, whom he lost his virginity to in a beautiful picturesque setting on the shores of lapping waves, atop a rocky pier below a phallic light house. But this is distraction, as is much of the movie; as misdirecting and diverting as all of the daily events in Jep’s life are – the maniacal parties, the dancing women and stripping whores and booze-laden menageries of buxom fun and bedazzlement that is his existence. For example, the rippling water adorning the ceiling above Jep’s sleeping abode – when one sees what they want to see, it is rare to find what one truly seeks. This is a lesson taught well by The Great Beauty.
After casual sex with a random beautiful woman, Jep is offered the chance to bear witness to nude photographs that she has taken of herself. He feigns interest, and as she saunters off to get them, he quickly dresses and leaves, never to see her again. Next, an attractive couple at a party offer to make love for him as entertainment, inviting him to join if he so desires; but try as he might, this primal excitement has sunk below his threshold for enjoyment. He remains bored, and moves off again in search of that which he once had, and lost.
While the film offers the viewer imaginative perspectives of glorious landscapes and architecture, the characters and dialogue contradict that which our eyes see. The ears, if properly tuned, will hear the next nugget of clue to the lost beauty of Jep’s journey that surfaces: Rome herself. And has she lost what she once was as well? Just as Jep has? Is she no longer the inspired land of art and culture, and national pride that she once was? Have the youth missed the morals of the past and been deceived by the present to seek their fortunes and futures on foreign soils? Has entertainment and technology buried the living with the dead? These questions and more are posed throughout multiple nostalgic conversations on Rome, then and now. No honest answers are perceived through the fourth wall, but the characters certainly make their beliefs known within the microcosm of their lavish worlds; as if they each had the keys to the ancient unknown, and all because they are trustworthy and noble socialites.
Toward the latter half of the story, we are treated to a strange tale within a tale, one told of religion and lies – truths and roots. A strange old woman, proclaimed a Saint, is introduced and interferes with the usual unfolding of Jep’s gatherings. She does things her way, asserting power over the empowered, bearing title over the entitled, and bolding the pettiness of all that Jep and friends pretend is not. She even sleeps on Jep’s bedroom floor. He is powerless with her, and he is okay with that. Unbeknownst to him, it helps him grow, but not enough. Never enough, such is his life.
The Saint has a strict diet – she eats only plant roots. At first, all assume it is the meager meals of the deeply religious, but she explains to Jep – after making a strong point to inquire as to why he never wrote another book – that she eats roots because they are important. Jep cannot understand, for he has no roots. He struggles to grasp meaning in what he hears, and in contemplation he pushes himself out further than he has in the four decades since arriving in Rome. Yet, he does not wander far enough. He does not travel beyond Rome. He is stuck in his endless circle of broken ambition. While there is beauty all around him, he has been blinded by it, and can no longer recognize it. He can no longer see his place in the world. Without roots, Jep has no guidance to follow, no culture to call home, no love to nurture, no future to look forward to, and a past that has been so oversaturated with savor that it has turned dark in his belly and fills him with emptiness that lingers, just as he does. While death drains life all around him, he persists, strangely.
In the final shot of the film, Jep’s journey floats smoothly through the waters of the city, looking here and there; a quest for something we now know he will never find. It’s not his lover’s lost beauty, nor love. Not Rome’s lost splendor or grandeur. It’s not even his own passing youth and virility. It is, instead, that spark of transcendental life that he has lost – that passion of ambition and drive to be more than you are – to grow and achieve levels higher than you ever had before. Jep seeks enlightenment and answers to the meaning of life. He’s looked in all the wrong places, and by the very end of the story he is tragically no closer to finding it.