The Romantic Warning

rom1The romantics have often been regarded as reactionaries, because of their unwelcoming attitude towards the great mutation that the industrial revolution was about to produce in their countries. A revolution is a radical, somehow violent change, whose consequences are often unpredictable, but  early romantics instinctively felt that the great transformation the world was undergoing wouldn’t have been free of charge.

Modern man, once left his “natural state” and thrown into the dynamics of a materialistic and competitive society, dominated by the threat of clock time, would have seen the nature of his certainties collapse with the consequent urgency of redefining a new scale of values. But what kind of values can a materialistic society produce? Wealth? Success? Career? Can a society, whose imperative is “time is money” and whose members are only small mechanisms of a careless system, be considered as an amelioration of the previous one in terms of quality of life and, why not, happiness? Certainly not.

That’s why the romantics kept on fighting strenuously against “modernity”, advocating the superiority of the values produced by the “old” world. If men abandoned their Eden, their natural state, just like modern Adam and Eve, they would only find pain, hard labor, misery, hence slowly becoming insensitive and indifferent. Therefore, they began to strive using their lines as weapons, lines that they had deliberately simplified in order to reach with their message the heart of as many people as possible. They talked about the importance of memory, the beauty of nature, the necessity of a world of sensibility without restraining from the impulse of imparting a moralizing lesson.

But the process couldn’t be stopped and somehow they were defeated by the course of events. The great industrial change had spread all over the country and towns, like mushrooms, kept on growing disorderly and faster and faster. At the altar of “modernity” man was sacrificing his greatest gifts as well: his creativeness, his sense of taste and harmony. Man now needed to put at the top of his scale of values beauty, many artists claimed. The most optimistic were convinced that educating people to beauty would have meant to improve man’s ethical sense at the same time, but the majority of them thought that it was too late to teach anything to anybody and kept themselves away from the rude and insensitive masses. The first five decades of folly of the twentieth century and two world wars swept away the few certainties and values left and men seemed now motionless seated on a “heap of broken images” of the past waiting for their Godot like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. We are still waiting.

The Great Beauty

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Here we are,15 years after Benigni’s “Beautiful Life“, another Italian movie, ” The Great Beauty” won the Oscar for the best foreign language film. It was a very much expected award, at least outside these borders, as the movie is the rare product of the combination of an extremely talented director Paolo Sorrentino, a masterly interpretation of Tony Servillo as Jep Gambardella and the most amazing actress ever: Rome.

elfilm-com-the-great-beauty-261997Rome has a double symbology here: it’s the breathtaking  “great beauty” with its architecture, churches, fountains, cloisters, squares that Sorrentino skillfully uses as a never-ending sequence of postcards to enthrall the spectators; but Rome is also the capital, the centre of power and the Vatican, the higher expression of moral degradation and spiritual decay, which attracts and deceives the vast multitudes of gross people who come here with the hope to find that something that may give sense to their hollowness. Beauty and vulgarity, dream and bitter realism overlap, and Rome is there, indifferent and beautiful.

partThis double symbology is soon introduced by Sorrentino. In fact the movie opens on a group of Japanese holidaymakers who are listening to their guide’s explanations. One of them leaves his friends to admire in silence the stunning view of the town and he is so overwhelmed by its beauty to die. Soon after Sorrentino takes us to the crowded, opulent  party which celebrates Jep Gambardella‘s 65th birthday, the central character of the movie . Like the Great Gatsby he makes his appearance after several minutes of frantic dances with the hypnotizing soundtrack of the famous Italian icon Raffaella Carrà. Jep had arrived in Rome in his late twenties and he had been soon absorbed by the jet-set party life. Jep is a journalist and writer of only one novel, which had become a best seller. Even if in some aspects he seems to evoke the character of Marcello Mastroianni in “la Dolce Vita“, his approach to life is more disenchanted and detached. He is the impassive spectator of the vacuous depressive humanity who surrounds him and finds in amusement, the only way to forget the failures and the senselessness of their lives.

ferilliIn my opinion Sorrentino is largely indebted  toTony Servillo, who took part in almost all of his movies and is a sort of “fetish actor” for him. Charismatic and touching at the same time, Servillo ranges from a sarcastic to an introspective tone with his snobbish Neapolitan accent, with the result that you cannot but hang on every word he says as if hypnotized. The cast is particularly rich, as many famous Italian actors wanted to be part of the movie even only for a “cameo”, a short appearance. However two of them, Sabrina Ferilli e Carlo Verdone, who are very popular here,seem to have been quite disappointed when they knew that hadn’t been invited to the Oscar night. I can understand them.

I have to say that “The Great Beauty” has been more appreciated by the critics abroad than here. The dreamlike narrative tone, the nonsensical characters and the homage to the Eternal City have seemed nothing but a revival of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita“, “Roma“, “Otto e Mezzo” and many others. Even after the victory, criticism hasn’t stopped. Ah, envy!

If you want to see of the locations of the Great Beauty click on the link.

Monstrous beauty

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Beauty has always been associated to goodness. Just think about it, whenever we feel the attractive power of somebody’s beauty, we instinctively believe him/her upright, trustworthy, generous and therefore superior. This is because we naturally put to use the paradigms we have been taught when we were children, through fairy tales for instance. The word fairy, in fact, comes from  fair, that is righteous, virtuous, but also beautiful, light, blonde, hence the equation : beauty = good.  All the heroes and heroines of fairy tales have more or less the  same features, and story after story it was very simple to spot the deserving good one to love and stand with.   

Yet, religion warns us against the deception of beauty.  Ezekiel 28 reminds us that Satan, the fallen angel,  was once the “anointed cherub“, that is the most beautiful and wisest creature God had ever created and “perfect in beauty“, the highest being created. But “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your   wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings.” (Ezekiel 28:17). Satan fell because his beauty had made him proud. He desired to be God, not to be a servant of God, that’s why he was cast out of heaven. Therefore Satan is perfect in beauty on the outside, yet ugly and grotesque on the inside.

In Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, the monstrous being forged by Victor Frankenstein is exactly the opposite example. The more our modern Prometheus despises his creature’s ugliness on the outside, calling him “monstrous image“, “detested form“,”abhorred monster“, ” wretch devil” etc. the more we see the beauty of his inside and we cannot but sympathize with him.”All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things” he says to Victor. His monstrosity has isolated him from the other human beings who despise him. He is alone and he can only seek for the compassion and help of his creator, but when Victor, rather, threats to kill him, he imparts him a moral lesson remarking: “How dare you sport thus with life?” reminding him that he is not God and that he is acting against the laws of nature. However, differently from Satan, he is determined to respect who gave him life, despite his immense physical strength:  “Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine, my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed”. Victor is the responsible for his loneliness and unhappiness and as he is his creature ( as he repeats  twice), something must be done. The deep human understanding of this character can be found in these simple words that sound like a desperate plea :”I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend”. Certainly the creature is talking for himself, but that statement seems to have a more universal meaning: is it so then? We were born good, but unhappiness, prejudice, fear, rejection turn us into monsters and evil creatures? Theologian Vito Mancuso maintains that man naturally tends towards the good – the monster himself is attracted by the goodness of the family who lives near his hut – this is what will save us in the eternal battle of good versus evil. Maybe it will, but not so soon I guess.