Sunday, 23 February 2014

La Sagrada and La grande bellezza, two films

In the last week we went to see two very different movies, one a documentary and another one recommended to me by our friend in London David N. We had to wait a few months but both movies were great to see.

La Sagrada as the title implies is about the great basilica under construction for the last 130 years, where Antoni Gaudi spent most of his life working. The Expiatory Church of the Holy Family as it is know in Barcelona is an incredible work of architecture. This documentary shows you through photographs, aerial shots and interviews with the different builders, architects, artists and master carvers how the work is progressing. It is almost a miracle after all the troubled times of the XXth Century to see this church nearing completion today, final completion date is said to be 2028. The question remains though will it ever be finished since the main Glory portal is still a blank concrete wall, work is however progressing well in all other areas.

There is still several groups who are for or against completion of the building work.  One is the City of Barcelona Municipal administration who appears not to be very interested in seeing the building completed, a second group is the various critics who believe the church should never be completed and accuse the current sculptors and architects of designing a Disney like building and who question what purpose does it serve to complete this masterwork. You also have the various people who work at completing the building and who are determined to see the work of Gaudi done.

Major obstacle stand in the way today, one is the main rail tunnel only 30 meters below street level of the Barcelona-Paris high speed train which passes several times a day as it enters or leaves the train station in Barcelona. Low vibration could damage the uncompleted Glory main facade of the Basilica.

The other is the fact that the City of Barcelona sold all the land in front of the church and directly across the street to a developer in 1976 going against established municipal zoning laws. Buildings now block the area that was to become a grand 200 meter long plaza as designed by Gaudi.

The stark unfinished front facade, Glory facade, will it ever be finished?

The 1936 start of the Spanish Civil War saw all the designs by Gaudi destroyed by the Republicans who were against the Catholic Church in Spain who had sided with General Franco and the Fascist forces, work stops completely.  In 1939 the Second World War became another obstacle despite Spain being technically speaking Neutral though it supported Nazi Germany, lack of funds was another chronic problem. After the war a commission of experts wanted the building to remain as is, an unfinished ruin or a museum, luckily they did not succeed. It was only in 1976 that work re-started again with Catalonia becoming an autonomous region as it was prior to 1936.

Today the Basilica has become a major tourist attraction bringing in millions of Euros a year, financing is no longer a problem and construction is going on at great speed, based on fragments of documentation and drawings that has been salvaged. The artists continue their work based on Gaudi inspired designs.

The aerial shots of the basilica gives a wonderful view of the building and it is well narrated with interesting interviews of the principal actors involved in this great work.
I found it to be a very satisfying documentary on a building I first heard of when in was a child in school some 50 years ago, I am so happy to have had 2 opportunities to see it and walk through it.

Possible foreign film Oscar winner?

The other movie La Grande Bellezza ( The great beauty) a Fellini style film by Paolo Sorrentino resonates with me. It was suggested to me by our friend in London David Nice, he has impeccable taste when it comes to suggesting books to read, exhibitions to see or in this case a movie.

To me La Grande Bellezza is La Dolce Vita 60 years later, in many ways Italian society has not changed and it is a sad, funny, challenging movie and like life it has elements of nonsense where you want to say wait a minute, it is also strangely immoral. It is the story of a man Jep Gambardella, an author who wrote one book in his life and became famous, the book entitled L'apparato Umano.

Jep is 65 years old and the movie opens on his birthday party at his luxurious penthouse in Rome over looking the Collosseum and the Palatine Hill, not a bad view. His friends are the old money of Rome, Princesses and Counts, authors, and simply very rich people. They dress well, they go to parties and drink a lot but do not do anything much with their lives and all of them are on the threshold of their senior years. Everyone is unhappy about how Rome let them down, that is a phrase Italians will recognize. This movie is a critique of Italian society today, of its decay, rampant mediocrity and the themes being developed speak to a sort of Italian angst about life and what it is suppose to be or not be. Rome of course is for Romans the greatest city on Earth none compare to it, never has, never will. We lived in Rome for a few years and I know exactly what that means. The problem is that Rome is an old city, very old with a seriously decaying infrastructure amid architectural and artistic treasures.

People continue to live in this old City as if things were just fine though everyone knows they are not but no one will lift a finger to change anything by fear of braking a magic spell. There is a sort of neurosis, in fact there is an expression, people will say that they miss the neurotic atmosphere of Rome. Say this to an Italian and he will smile, you spoke like a true Roman.

Jep sees his friends and old lovers decaying and dying, one is his first love who dumped him when he was 19, she married another man and many decades later upon her death her husband discovers a diary, she kept for decades, full of praise for Jep and not a word for him after 35 years of marriage. Jep wonders why did she leave me. Another friend is an unpleasant club owner on the fame Via Veneto, he owns one of those expensive night clubs full of Polish strippers, his own daughters is a stripper, claiming to be an artiste but she too is looking to cure herself of ennui, what is her problem no one seems to know, not even her. Viola a fabulously wealthy women who lives in one of the many great palaces of Rome loose her son who kills himself, he is psychotic but his mother believes that he is doing better, he too is uncomfortable with the world around him and with himself.  There is also the little daughter of a wealthy art dealer who is exploited by her parents for profit. At garden parties for a select crowd she performs, creating large canvasses of modern art which sells for millions of Euros. One women notices that the child is crying while she creates these great canvases, no one else seems to care, the party must go on.

The list of character goes on and so too the parties, the drugs and the luxurious lifestyle and not to forget the Botox clinic also set in a fantastic baroque setting. Yes Botox treatment for high society Rome is a prerequisite, everyone does it and it is obscenely expensive.

Jep on his terrasse 

Sorrentino hits all the beautiful people of Rome, the powerful Cardinal who it is said will be the next Pope, cynical, wealthy, a Prince of the Church who rides in a beautiful Rolls Royce and has nothing to say for himself, except to give out cooking recipes. The parish priest and the nun who are having an affair and who dine in a 5 star restaurant and drink Cristal champagne, how can they afford it? The ruined Count and his wife who still live in the beautiful palace of their ancestors in Rome. The palace is a museum and they have 2 rooms in the attic, renting themselves out at high society parties, their name alone brings prestige but little else. The there is the visiting Saint modelled after Mother Teresa, she comes to Rome to receive an award from the Pope, it is said she is 104 and looks it, she only eats roots.
She has not given an interview in decades and when Jep tries to interview her for his publisher she merely replies that one cannot speak of Poverty, one lives it. In one famous scene she is seen climbing on her knees as is required the Santa Scala (Holy Stairs) said to be from the Palace of Pontius Pilate, Jesus climbed those stairs on his way to his trial, the staircase was brought back to Rome by Saint Helena. At the top of which is a Christ resurrected, who has this look as if to say, well when you get to the top I'll be waiting.

The society shown in this movie is not the one seen by the traveller to Italy, you have to live there to see it, it is not open to foreigners, unless you speak flawless Italian and still, it is like a private club. A closed little world living by the rules known to the tribe, self-absorbed, languid, blaming Rome seen by many as a concept for their predicament. One scene shows a group of tourists, they are Asians, outsiders permitted to visit the City who will never be part of it, totally unaware of the traditions like the noon day gun on the Gianicolo Hill. Sorrentino is telling us that Rome has always been like that, vulgar, rough and imperious. The visitors (tourists) are looked down upon by the formal grandeur of this Eternal City.

Beautifully shot, love the musical score, it was eerily reminiscent of my years in Rome, yes we met such people living this Roman Carnival. There is no violence in this movie, the city even at night is quiet and peaceful as I remember it, people simply go on somewhat like the Tiber which flows slowly through the city. Roman Society is not a pretty sight despite the diamonds and great names. Well worth seeing, I thought it was hauntingly beautiful. In the end you discover what the great beauty was or is, it could be Rome but no, it is something quite simple.

 A movie not to be missed.



  1. You did a splendid job describing this; I felt I had seen it.

  2. Interesting interview with Servillo I read today; what it says you amplify splendidly above. He said that the parallel was made with Fellini's films of the 60s and 70s, but that when those were made, people thought Italy had a future. Now they are under no such illusion.

    1. That is the problem with very old countries like Italy, Greece and the like. Everyone thinks well we went through worse it will get better for sure. However in the case of Italy today my friends tell me that it is better to send your kids away to make a future for them.