The first half of 2014 might be considered a good moment for Classics on film. The 300: Rise of Empire revives the great battles of the early Classical period (although I am not sure exactly which empire the title refers to: is it Athens? Sparta? Hollywood? Here I feel a bit like Croesus must have at Delphi). Pompeii uses the eruption of Vesuvius as the dramatic backdrop for a Roman sword and sandal drama, and forthcoming films on Hercules (nee Herakles) and Hannibal promise that the ancient world will remain prominent at the megaplex for some time to come. But the film that Classicists and anyone that loves the ancient world should see is La Grande Bellezza, The Great Beauty.
The film is, well, beautiful, not the least for numerous shots of sun-drenched Rome glowing in that colour that is wholly owned by Rome and Rome alone; the film gloriously captures the Eternal City shining its brilliant yellow-tinted reddish hue from apartments, palaces, and rooftops. Rome’s trademarked colour is at its most conspicuous when raking sunlight – either early in the day or just before dusk – hits its red bricks, white travertine and warm terracottas. The result creates a sense of place like no other and establishes Rome as a magnetic force. Beyond the aesthetics, watching the film is a humbling experience. It contrasts Rome’s long-lived and beautiful artistic and architectural traditions with our transience and the fact that we have but one single moment to reflect upon, embrace, and perhaps even challenge a tradition greater than us all. Only Rome could provide the historical context for a film to move us by presenting the weight of history and at the same time demonstrate that our “maiores” have wrestled with these ponderous questions long before it became our turn. As classicists, we are in a place to appreciate that history: our eyes and ears are open and we are receptive to the message because we know the value of the past.
Rome is truly one of the protagonists (another is the incomparable Toni Servillo, who has Marcello’s ennui with Toto’s rubbery features). In the film, debates swirl around living in Rome and how it affects and ultimately changes someone. One character feels that that city is the only true expression of Marxism — Rome pulls everyone to the centre. Another felt he had to leave Rome because of the city’s unstoppable decline. Decadent Rome. Crumbling, just like the ruins of the Colosseum viewed from Jeb’s terrace, or the buildings in the Roman Forum. The great beauty of their debate is that it is anything but new. Rome was crumbling for Marcello in La Dolce Vita by Fellini, Rome was decaying for Piranesi as he made woodcuts, and Rome was certainly dying for Juvenal. Rome was in the depth of depravity for Livy, “our solutions are worse than the disease” and for Cicero, too: “o tempora o mores.” The Eternal City presents its perpetual decadence to us and continues to inspire another generation to contemplate time, life, love, death, and our place in a greater spectrum. And yes, it also makes us reflect on beauty, happiness, love, and redemption: all of those things that make living among the decay worthwhile. In one scene in which the protagonists walk through an empty Capitoline Museum (the Dying Gaul makes a guest appearance), it is clear that the price of beauty is decay. The beautiful abounds when we seek it out, recognize, and value it: cultures, artists, architects, and entire societies will eventually pass, but chasing beauty ensures that there is something preserved for the next one. It creates a tradition, which can, and has, extended for centuries. Rome’s decadence is our eternal fountainhead of inspiration.