These Italian and American cinematic masterpieces remind us that beauty needs sorrow to exist
Both Lester Burnham and Jep Gambardella, the respective protagonists of American Beauty and The Great Beauty, represent everything the common imagination binds to the sublime pleasure of social approval, the more or less concealed desire at the base of every other aspiration. Stability, consent and personal fulfilment on the one hand; success, popularity and ostentatious wealth on the other.
The two films came out fourteen years apart and were set in diametrically opposite contexts, such as the ‘chic but freak’ bubble that only occasionally intersects Rome with some of its glimpses and characters, and the ordinary, dull American province based on the same old rituals. However, they do collide in the Schopenauerian subject of anti-hedonism, namely the paradoxical human inability to feel pleasure.
Lester Burnham, played by a masterful Kevin Spacey, then at the beginning of his string of willingly nihilistic and seemingly dehumanized characters, is a middle-aged employee that found his space in the evergreen American dream. Unheeded by a stranger wife and a teenage daughter facing a deep identity crisis, in one of the most powerful scenes of the movie he is reflected in the office computer screen, metaphorically confined behind the bars of the columns of numbers appearing on the old DOS.
Toni Servillo, Paolo Sorrentino’s pet actor, is completely absorbed by the more iconic than real figure of Jep Gambardella, a disenchanted and decadent former writer. Having learned on his skin to understand the natural limits of an ephemeral pursuit of happiness, he has been slacking off by the swirl of high-life in which he decided to slowly drown with a smile. Therefore, both Lester and Jep reveal that the full-blown deterioration of their youth ambitions is nothing but the projection of a way off those dreams and emotional ties that nobody is capable of fulfilling without paying the price of sorrow.
Nevertheless, the two titles remind us that there is some beauty in the world. In fact, the world itself is part of a beauty system, sometimes undetectable in appearance (American Beauty), sometimes shamelessly ignored (The Great Beauty). Lester and Jep notice that, through persons, dreamlike images and vivid memories. However, both are crushed by screenplays that are nothing more than a metaphor for our inner voice. An instinct that, driven by the most mortal feelings, takes hold of us from the very first moment we enter a frightening society, whose foundation is the fake pleasure of competition, a farce the purpose of which is not to hate ourselves more than just being loved from the others. A pleasure that therefore, without mercy, does not allow anyone to step out of line.
This is exactly why the two films by Sam Medes and Paolo Sorrentino are both rightly regarded as contemporary masterpieces. They have nothing to do with the usual, trivial reality that turns into drama when the directors decide to play the part of dei ex machina of an intrinsically hypocrite society, to become themselves the main characters of their own movies. On the contrary, both rip the veils of the plot’s ruthlessness to put the lost beauty of their characters at its center, as the titles suggest. Titles that refer to that objective beauty that, albeit in different ways, we all manage to see as life, in a continuous swing between enchantment and sorrow.