I have just read a very interesting article written by Barbara Casavecchia in Frieze Art Magazine on the continuing decline of Italy as allegorically shown through two Italian contemporary films. The title of the article is Roman Ruins and it is my intention to pick up the ball when Casavecchia seems to drop it in order to make some sense of the issues that are discussed. She refers to two recent movies which have been ‘endlessly’ discussed in Italy: Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Belleza (The Great Beauty, 2013) and Gianfrianco 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 Grane 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 are inevitable; they are 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 of 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 Gamberdella, 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?(Gay) Irony abound. 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. Does this ring a bell?


Then she refers to Sacro GRA which depicts the outskirts of Rome where the same thing happens but within a far less glamorous setting. It is as if the GRA as a ring that contains Rome’s old city transformed it into a ghost, shaped by nocturnal visions and promenades across empty palaces, while Rossi’s Sacro GRA stops at the border on the constant stream of cars and planes.

It is at this point that Casavecchia gets melancholic about the whole thing and says: ‘These films 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 socialising, 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’. My problem with this final statement is that it suggests that life has tragically became ‘blinding’ and that is presented as a fact in front of which we can only sigh. I guess this is my problem with cultural criticism at Frieze Magazine. I am sorry but this is not enough if we are talking about ‘art and cultural criticism’ we must at least explore the context to see if that ‘absence’ of ‘Rome’ means anything at all. I am saying this because it is very easy to just roll our eyes and say: ‘well, that is the way life goes’.

In his book ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’, Slavoj Žižek extensively discusses this cultural trend towards bring reality as a given in order to shock and then create that melancholy that will give way to ‘getting used to it’ by trivialising it or making it ‘ironic’. In other words, Frieze Magazine (and Casavecchia) are doing exactly what they are claiming to denounce which is saturating the informational space with ‘noise’. I am saying this because while Casavecchia refers to an ‘inhuman’ Rome, Italy seems to favours an ‘human, all too human’ Berlusconi. So what happens with this upstaging and downplaying of ‘humanity’ in Italy?

What makes Berlusconi so interesting as a political phenomenon is the fact that he, as the most powerful politician in his country, acts more and more shamelessly: he not only ignores or neutralises any legal investigation into his criminal activity that has allegedly supported his private business interests, he also systematically undermines the basic dignity associated with being the head of state. In Žižek’s words: ‘the dignity of classical politics is grounded in its elevation above the play of particular interests in civil society: politics is ‘alienated’ from civil society, it presents itself as the ideal sphere of the citoyen in contrast to the conflict of selfish interest that characterise the bourgeois. The question is then whether Rome as the ideal of the old republican and Catholic dignity has decided to disappear in shame in front of its own contemporary choices and that is what these films are depicting. More than emptiness, I would say they are all about self-pity. Just a thought.