Jep Gambardella, a 65-year-old Italian writer, wanders around Rome, hosts literary soirées and parties, and lives la dolce vita.
Rome. Death. The film begins with a Japanese tourist collapsing. Before he’s even bitten the dust, an all-female vocal ensemble, dressed in black, sings a mournful Yiddish folk song (translated lyrics: “I lie down in bed alone and snuff out my candle”). Death haunts the whole movie. We encounter magnificent mausoleums; we sit in on the funeral of a disturbed young man; we read “Roma o morte” (“Rome or death”) inscribed on a statue of Garibaldi; and Jep’s lover lies motionless on a bed, her arm draped like the arm of Jacques-Louis David’s Marat murdered in his bath – an intimation of her death.
But if the film is about death, it’s also about the (non-) writing life. It’s a wet dream of how a writer lives: coddled, fêted, and known by everyone from pole dancers to papal candidates. And we never see him write a word. For Jep is a “writer.” He’s been blocked for forty years, ever since he published a “novelette” entitled The Human Apparatus, which was hailed as a masterpiece. Now he merely poses as a writer. Elegantly coiffed and immaculately besuited, he’s an ageing prince in pastel – the perfect example of la bella figura – and in this case, the style is the man. Like his friends and the world they inhabit, he’s all surface. Even the creases in his brow seem pre-arranged.
But beneath Jep’s perfect sheen there’s a man in the first stages of crisis. For he has sinned against his talent. Instead of facing the grind of writing every day, Jep chose to become a socialite. Now he does half-hearted hack work interviewing the semi-famous, and takes midnight strolls through the cobbled streets, the flâneur par excellence, his face haloed in a fug of cigarette smoke. An exquisite observer, he watches Rome as a hawk watches its prey, and his observations dazzle: a nun chasing children through a maze, a flock of birds wheeling in a blue sky, a fat man washing himself in a fountain.
The film has no discernible plot bar Jep’s growing ennui among Rome’s elite hedonists. Clearly influenced by Fellini, the director Paolo Sorrentino shows us a series of scenes from the literary life. Some of the preoccupations will be familiar to working writers: a proposed publication of interviews, discussions with an editor, a friend who needs help putting on his play, endless chatter and parties.
Ah, the parties. These are pure bacchanalia – women jumping out of cakes or dancing naked behind a screen; mass raves of young and old; conga lines outfitted by Versace and Armani. The parties are beautifully filmed, and the debauchery reminds us of Rome two thousand years ago, with these characters the heirs of the decadent emperors.
In fact, the film is, in part, about decadence. It is decadence. But the worldly pleasures have ceased to beguile Jep. In movie tropes, sex equals death, and Jep sleeps with a host of beautiful women, but joylessly. Whither the pleasures and the vices? A washed-up TV star snorts cocaine and scurries out of Jep’s kitchen, ugly and tainted. A young couple glimpsed through an apartment window have been kissing for ten days, we are told, but they look more like a pair of insects sucking the life out of each other. Even Rome’s gourmet cuisine falls flat. A discarded plate of pasta looks like a stew of larvae and seaweed, and the soup Jep eats with his editor appears to have been dredged up from a swamp.
Every single character in the film is losing their looks. At one point, Jep sits in the shadowy waiting room of a botox treatment clinic along with a parade of faded beauties. They are waiting to be injected by a demonic doctor for 700 Euros a shot. The symbolism couldn’t be more obvious if the doctor had horns and a tail.
As for Jep’s friends, they are immaculately coutured and shallow as a puddle. Their conversations consist of publishing gossip and faux-profound nonsense. Watching a conga line made by his friends at a drunken rave, Jep remarks, “Our trains are the best in Rome, because they go nowhere.” The only sympathetic character is the one representative of the working class (I mean it literally: she’s the only character who actually works): Jep’s housekeeper. She is a conscience of sorts, the good angel on Jep’s shoulder.
Jep himself is only redeemed by the beautiful things he sees around Rome and also by his capacity to deliver withering putdowns to those who deserve them. These suggest he has a hotline to the truth and therefore is still in touch with his artistic sensibility (beauty, of course, is truth). One character asks about a famous poet who frequents their soirées: “Why doesn’t he ever talk?” Jep replies, “Because he listens.”
The film is a visual feast, a love letter to the city. We are treated to an extraordinary array of Roman noses, villas, candles, and pools, and the lighting is pure Caravaggio: shadows everywhere. Towards the end there is a scene of delicious surrealism when Jep comes across a live giraffe among the ruins of the thermal baths. Jep’s magician friend makes the giraffe disappear. “It’s just a trick!” says the magician and this becomes the film’s refrain. The world is all shimmer and no light.
Ultimately, Jep’s life is as hollow as the vast marble rooms where his girlfriends’ heels click and echo. He knows it and revels in it, and recognizes that soon his revels will be ended. He tells a friend he may start writing again, but he doesn’t believe it and neither do we. The only winner in this lugubrious game is Rome itself, The Old Lady, the great beauty, also fading.