It is quite possible that there is no other population as passionate, expressive and full of life as the denizens of Italy--and Rome especially. In Paulo Sorrentino's (of This Must Be the Place acclaim) La Grande Bellezza, this fact is exuded in every frame--each one dripping with more decadence than the last. An obvious descendant of Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Anselmi in 8 1/2 (though many have compared the movie to La Dolce Vita), Jep Gambardella (Toni Sevillo) is a writer with a penchant for high society and throwing parties. The characters he encounters as he enters his sixty-fifth year (and, as a sixty-five year old, he parties much more intensely than anyone in their early twenties) reveal a different piece of the evocative collage that is Rome and life.
Beginning with one of the most unforgettable party scenes ever committed to film, Jep looks on at his eclectic collection of guests as one of the most quintessentially European dance tracks is played in the background. While everyone else is enthralled and enraptured by the throes of a good time, Jep remains unfazed, introducing himself by saying:
"To this question, as kids, my friends always gave the same answer: 'Pussy.' Whereas I answered 'The smell of old people's houses.' The question was 'What do you really like the most in life?' I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella."
After the night of his birthday, Jep undergoes something of a vision quest--though it's really more of a visual rumination on his time in Rome, and what's it's all amounted to. The only novel he ever wrote, The Human Apparatus, came out decades ago when he was in his late twenties. Since then, Jep has relied on writing robust cultural articles for a magazine run by a female dwarf named Dadina (Giovanna Vignola). It is through this means that he has been able to cultivate his lifestyle as the king of making any party a success or failure. Throughout the course of the film, a number of people ask him why he never wrote another novel after his first masterpiece (he didn't even bother Salingering it with a few short story collections here and there). To one person--a Mother Theresa-like saint named Santa Maria--he explains, "I was looking for the great beauty, but I never found it."
The great beauty he once found to inspire him was his first love, Elisa, who broke up with him in September of 1970. He is reminded of this time period after Elisa's husband finds him in the wake of her death to tell Jep that she never stopped loving him and wrote just that in a secret diary he discovered. This revelation prompts Jep to reflect intensely, even revisiting an old friend who owns a strip club to catch up and talk about old times. It is there that he encounters the owner's 42-year-old daughter, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), who he finds attractive on a cerebral level after she says, "Maybe beautiful things aren't for me." Although he does like her (as much as a jaded sixty-five year old man can like a woman), he is, at the same time, distracting himself from his own boredom.
Ramona's spending habits are apparently what force her to continue stripping, even though she won't tell anyone where all her money goes. She ultimately confesses to Jep that she puts it all toward "curing [her]self." The many layers of this statement is indicative of Rome itself: Youth- and diversion-obsessed, two fixations that can prove to be rather expensive. Later in the narrative, Santa Maria appears to put the exorbitant lifestyle of Jep and his inner circle to shame as she asserts, "I took a vow of poverty. That means I must live it. Not talk about it."
And this "living" as opposed to "talking" is one of the sources of Jep's issues with returning to writing--he is far too busy with frivolity to concern himself with real action. There is also the film's opening quote to take into account, extracted from Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of Night, which states, "To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain." Jep's attachment to Rome, his seeming inability to leave it is a part of what has made him static, a caricature of the party scene. Nonetheless, it is often the case that our bane is our inspiration. In a way, we're all writing the unwritten novel of our lives, whether we're actively contriving the direction or not. It is as Jep says: "Beyond there is what lies beyond. And I don't deal with what lies beyond. Therefore, let this novel begin."