In recent months, two movies were endlessly discussed in Italy: Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013) and Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA (Holy GRA, 2013, the first-ever documentary to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival). GRA is the acronym of Rome’s Grande Raccordo Anulare, the Great Ring Road, ‘enclosing the capital like Saturn’s rings’, as the voice-over explains, quoting Federico Fellini’s Roma (1972). Comparisons between the two films were inevitable: they were both shot in Rome, tackle the city as a subject matter and focus on a gallery of occasionally overlapping stock Roman characters, such as the impoverished patrician. By including self-sacrificing ‘holy’ figures (respectively, a Mother Teresa lookalike and a compassionate first-aid volunteer), they even share a catholic taste for the disputable joys of asceticism – well in tune with Giorgio Agamben’s latest book, The Highest Poverty (2013), a study of monasticism that suggests the possession of ‘nothing’ generates a radical emancipation from the laws of economy and social life.
La Grande Bellezza – which echoes the title and tone of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) – spins the tragicomic story of Jep Gambardella, a witty journalist caught up in a vortex of hedonism who published his only novel decades ago: his life is a round of trashy parties, sex, drugs, dinners with Vatican celebrities, cerebral conversations and heavy bitching. At 65, Gambardella is disillusioned: ‘That’s my life: nothing. Flaubert wanted to write a novel about nothing and he didn’t succeed: how could I?’ Irony abounds. One scene depicts Gambardella mocking a performance artist, Talia Concept, who bangs her head on the quintessential Roman ruin, the Aqueduct, in front of an adoring audience.
Travelogues about the ring road, as a boundary between worlds, have become a picaresque subgenre in Italy: see, for instance, the book Tangenziali (Orbital Roads, 2010) by Gianni Biondillo and Michele Monina, which records the authors’ dérive, on foot, along the ring road of Milan. Sacro GRA is a documentary with no hero, no plot and no happy ending. It’s a loop of individual lives spent around the gra; one of the most memorable characters being the Palmologist, a botanist battling an infestation of a red bug, the Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, whose ‘orgies of consumption’ devastate the landscape. The idea for the film came from urban planner Nicolò Bassetti, who walked the 300 kilometres of the gra in order to ‘map’ it close-up.
Rosi declared that if La Grande Bellezza is ‘centripetal’ (i.e. it focuses entirely on the inner city), Sacro GRA is ‘centrifugal’. In fact, in both movies, the centre is nowhere to be found: contemporary Rome is invisible. For Sorrentino, the so-called Eternal City is a ghost, shaped by nocturnal visions and promenades across empty palaces, while Rosi stops at its border, as if GRA's constant stream of cars and planes was an insurmountable moat. I could add a third title to these postcards from Rome as non-place: Matteo Garrone’s film Reality (which won the Grand Prix at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival) is the story of a Neapolitan fishmonger, Luciano, who auditions for Italian Big Brother and, after failing to be accepted for it, goes crazy. During a pilgrimage to the capital with a friend who’s trying to help him, Luciano escapes and, at night, breaks into the show’s set in Cinecittà, where he finally puts himself in the ‘right picture’. The film closes on his ecstatic smile: nirvana accomplished.
Depicting the void is not an easy task. Cinema mirrors the dissolution of the Berlusconi-fied Italy of the last two decades, filled with inflatable slogans, botoxed beauties and a grotesque populism. A thin veneer of beauty holds together a hugely impoverished country. In the last five years alone, 1.8 million jobs were lost, the number of people living below the poverty line doubled to five million, and the unemployment rate amongst 15 to 24 year olds hit 40 percent, which resulted in a new wave of emigration and brain-drain towards stronger economies. Farewell, il Bel Paese (the Beautiful Country, as once described by Dante, another reference in La Grande Bellezza). And yet, there is something else about our ‘invisible’ present to be learned from these two movies – something I think extends beyond the rings of national borders. In very different ways, they describe the current state of crisis as a condition of recklessness, where movement is constant, but only apparent. If Gambardella is portrayed as perennially dancing, walking and socializing, in Sacro GRA the ring road becomes the epitome of constant flux, navigation and consumption, a dream of endless progress going round in circles. It’s a condition of compulsive, illusionary mobility, so common in advanced information society that it’s somehow blinding. In his book L’insieme vuoto (The Empty Set, 2013), Italian philosopher and art critic Federico Ferrari explains why our time is embodied by a new emblematic figure: ‘the flâneur lost his aura’, he writes, ‘and became a forcené (wild, crazed, frantic) with no direction’, whose entire existence consists of ‘a frenzied production of meaning, beyond any sense of direction and any recognizable objective’. In my world, it’s a character who has become all-too-familiar.