𝘓𝘢 𝘎𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘦 𝘉𝘦𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘻𝘻𝘢 is the tale of a high-society journalist-of-sorts who, in his life’s twilight, begins to reassess the value of his lavish, depraved and predominantly nocturnal existence.
When he was young and inspired, our protagonist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) wrote a critical darling of a novel entitled 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘏𝘶𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘈𝘱𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘴, which he never (in the 40-something years since) bothered to consolidate with a sophomore effort. 𝘞𝘩𝘺 𝘥𝘪𝘥𝘯’𝘵 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘸𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘯𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘭? is the question posed sincerely by admirers and tauntingly by foes, and consequently, is the query which reverberates in both his and our subconscious for the entirety of the film.
We wander with him through Rome as he pursues encounters with ‘beauty’ with the same tenacity as a sunbather rolling onto their front. He is unmoved by the attempts of some, while, like us, totally staggered by others. It should be noted that Jep is, after all, a highly-regarded reviewer of top-end modern art (in all of its ludicrous forms), which makes him somewhat of an authority, or even a gatekeeper-of-sorts, on the topic of beauty. That said, these moments of beauty never seem to come from those of the art-world, but rather creep up on him (and us too, for that matter) from the most unexpected corners.
There are the simple and fleeting moments like the exchanged glances between two men, one strolling along the banks of the Tiber, the other passing by on an empty cruise boat; or the whimsy of a flock of migrating flamingos taking a pit-stop before the wondrous backdrop of a dawn-lit Coliseum; or those equally enchanting, earthbound beauties, like the dervish-like saint ascending the holy stairs of St. John Lateran’s Basilica.
This is what I call 𝘤𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘮𝘢 𝘰𝘧 𝘮𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘴—cinema with little structure and a deliberate deprival of narrative threads long enough to follow. So many of the characters are of no contribution to the story, but only assist in twisting this ever-shifting kaleidoscopic image of Rome…
The magic of this film is that we’re never underwhelmed by what the director presents as beautiful—that amidst all of the vulgarity, our moments of pure flabbergast are perfectly in-sync with Jep’s.
By the end of the film, in a moment of weakness, Jep finally gives his first straight answer to the earlier question—but by then, it doesn’t seem to matter, because we understand it is a film as much about Jep’s journey as it is about Rome, or religion, or any one of the transient characters who depart as quietly as they came.
By that logic, I’m not even sure that 𝘓𝘢 𝘎𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘦 𝘉𝘦𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘻𝘻𝘢 knows what it’s about—but if it does, I’d say that that idea is followed throughout with generally ill-discipline. But isn’t this elusiveness and meandering uncertainty part of the whole appeal? Or even the whole point? Like its protagonist, this film takes pleasure in idly wandering through a sleeping Rome, hands in pockets, in pursuit of some unplanned encounter with beauty…
A final note: as some of you might’ve gathered by now, it is impossible not to read this film as an offspring of Fellini’s 𝘓𝘢 𝘋𝘰𝘭𝘤𝘦 𝘝𝘪𝘵𝘢 (1967); and while the inseverable link at times works to the film’s own detriment, it certainly bears more than enough idiosyncrasy to merit its own being.
That said, there are some themes which feel blatantly replicated: the enchanting yet depraved allure of Rome, the luxuriating/promising-writer-turned-journalist who has fallen under this very spell—and even the frolicsome way in which the camera negotiates its way through spaces, or even the eccentric taste in characters, feels like a sensibility obtained from Fellini rather than his own experience.
For that, I deduct half a mark.