COMPARING THE STATE OF AFFAIRS OF ‘GLORIA’ AND ‘THE GREAT BEAUTY’
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
I fell in love with Gloria (Paulina García) during the screening of Sebastián Lelio’s “Gloria” at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but she was not exactly the easiest of characters to embrace. That realization speaks more to the notion of how we, in the Western world – First World, at that – conceive of women featured in narratives. We want young, beautiful figures, liberated up to a point, but aware of the limits on them – and willing to keep quiet about those limits. If they must find themselves during their onscreen journeys, they should do so, in relation to the men or other peripheral characters in their lives, which is especially true if the women happen to be older characters – you know, characters of a certain age.
But Gloria, fiftysomething and divorced with grown children, bucks the trend a bit. She hits the club after work, drinking and dancing with abandon, while in pursuit of the kind of experience generally accepted/expected of men of her age – she’s on the prowl. Gloria’s not looking for arm candy though; rather, she wants a worthy companion, an equal to share her life with, and she’s got a lot of life in her. The pulsing dance beats match her racing heartbeat, but its not as if she is running too fast to keep up. The music could be said to be in the race of its life to stay astride with her.
There is a certain insecurity in Gloria – the film and the character – but that comes from social and cultural experience and conditioning – the same factors that seek to temper my love for her. Yet, somehow I saw myself in her struggles. As a man who was single into my thirties, I had come to assume I might not find a suitable partner either. I tended to date women of a certain age, who complemented my old soul, but they inevitably were divorced and bearing baggage from previous relationships they were quick to unload in our emerging space. Gloria encounters this with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), the former naval officer she meets while clubbing, with whom she strikes up a passionate exchange. He seems perfect – sexy, older and alive – until it becomes clear he is still tethered to his former wife and adult children who can’t live without him – and in reality, he cannot exist without them.
Gloria will survive, though, and she will keep on keeping on. That is what sustains the love we, as an audience, feel for her. She contains a strength that belies the notion of frail humanity. She is a real lover, which places her in stark contrast to Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), the protagonist of Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” which is among the nominees for this year’s Best Foreign Language Feature (Italy). Jep, celebrating his 65th birthday at the start of the film, is a journalist of some renown with one novel of distinction among those in the know, who has parlayed that into privileged access to the high life, complete with parties and lovers of dizzying variety.
Of course, when we meet Jep, he is beginning to question if, somehow, he has wasted his time chasing a dream rather than living a good life. Servillo captures the existential angst and ennui Jep wraps around himself like a custom-tailored suit, but for all the questioning and thoughtful consideration of his state – which leads to some harsh truth-telling, which he levels at one of his peers – Jep never strays from his prescribed path. He settles into a relationship of sorts with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a younger woman, relatively speaking – she is forty and determined to remain a stripper to prove she continues to elude the clutches of time, as he comes closer to figuring out the meaning of it all.
Jep seeks inspiration – not just to live, but also to remain vital and creative. Love, with even a partner of a certain age – say, like Gloria – would not be enough for him. “The Great Beauty” posits the notion creativity and the possibility of greatness derives from a connection with a more youthful spirit. Gloria – again, the film and the character – provides a more hopeful reflection. Maybe the act of living – loving and dancing – just goes on and isn’t limited by any certainty ascribed to age. Now that’s the key to something more than just surviving.