Rome through the lens of The Great Beauty

Joan Juliet Buck is an American writer and actress, and a former editrice of French Vogue. Here she describes how the torch she carries for Rome found fresh fuel in Paolo Sorrentino’s masterly movie The Great Beauty

There’s a soaring promise in the Roman vistas that’s always been hard to reconcile with today – the Roman social jabber, the celebrity vanities and excesses, parties like game show bacchanals, the tension, or apparent lack of tension, between chic communists, socialite cardinals, pillow-lipped wives, heirs, freaks, and shopkeepers holding hostage goods of unimaginable refinement.

There’s something bigger afoot, something stronger and wilder and more forgiving that anything you can imagine. You look out a window or down a Piazza or across to a patch of ruins and suddenly feel a raging ache for more of the same. If I stay at the Hotel Senato, I begin and end each day enraptured by the Pantheon not fifty feet away, a perfection two thousand years old. If I stay with friends on the Quirinal hill, they have to drag me from the window that frames the pines on the Palatine hill. There’s never enough Rome in Rome, because it promises so much.

Until now, no film has delivered Rome in all its dimensions – Fellini showed Rome as a grotesque expression of his fantasies (the term ‘grotesque’ itself comes from the frescoes uncovered in Nero’s Golden House, the Domus Aurea); Antonioni made Rome a backdrop to crushing ennui.

As Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty began, I dreaded the worst – here was a rooftop revel as gross as any Italian game show. Then the hero, a Roman fixture with slicked-back hair, a jaded face, and, one will find out, a corset under his bespoke shirt – opens his arms to embrace his 65th birthday party, and introduces himself as Jep. Once a novelist (one book, decades ago), he writes for a magazine. We meet his tough, brilliant editor-in-chief, who is just three feet tall and sometimes cooks up dinner on a hot plate in her magnificent office. Things happen the way they happen: chance encounters, formal introductions, collisions.

Rome unfolds, as rich and varied and incoherent as it really is: past and present together in a way that I have never seen done so well, ever. I went with a friend who didn’t know Rome. The terrace of Jep’s apartment  is a lavish outdoor living-room that gives onto the Colosseum. ‘That’s impossible,’ I hissed to my friend. ‘There is not one place in Rome that close to the Colosseum and above it, believe me, I’ve been looking for it for years. It must be CGI.’

The film is a masterpiece, a kind of blessing, and a gift: I found out there is such a place: the Colle Oppio, a hill that rises above Nero’s Domus Aurea. There is such an apartment. I found it on Google Earth.

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Photo by Indigo Film/Medusa Film/Babe Film/Canal +

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