The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

Posted on 03. Apr, 2014 by in Nuns, Priests

Journalist Jep Gambardella, looking back on his life and career among Rome’s rich and famous, immersed in their world, but not of them; intercuts his personal reminisces and his social life with surroundings of historic buildings and today’s tourists and joggers of modern-day Rome in The Great Beauty (English Subtitled).
Though Jep and the wealthy personages he circulates among live a largely secular existence, the Catholic Church is all around them. At the beginning of the movie, for some unexplained reason, the camera lingers on a group of little girls in white nuns’ dress behind a gate, looking out on a garden which Jep visits.

Hopefully, the church isn't letting them actually become nuns at such a young age!

Hopefully, the Church isn’t letting them become nuns at such a young age!


No explanation is given for the usage of footage involving these (presumed) nuns-in-training. (An explanation about say, living next door to a convent might have put this into context. However, it turns out that Jep not only doesn’t know his neighbors, but he belatedly discovers that a neighbor is a prominent banker who gets arrested and helicoptered away in handcuffs.)
For all their wealth, and the comforts that it can buy, the case can be made that many of the individuals of Rome’s elite who are seen in the movie associating with Jep are not very happy. A little girl artist who just wants to be a kid sobs as she does a giant abstract painting for an audience of gallery owners and art dealers; a woman who has a sexual encounter with Jep finds that he has bailed out of her bedroom when she offers to show him her self-portraits on facebook; one of Jep’s “guy friends” who manages a nightclub is hooked on heroin. In the midst of Jep’s vapid social world, comes a personal contact with a Cardinal, Cardinale Belluci, through whom comes an introduction to an old nun known for her holiness as a missionary to Africa, and whom the Cardinal cautions people not to call a saint, as they have been doing; because she is only not a saint due to the “technicality” of not being dead. She is a wizened, elderly Sister, who clearly is meant to echo in image and action another nun who in recent times was widely revered as a living saint by the Catholic lay population, though the Catholic hierarchy carefully tell the public that they must officially reserve judgment during the person’s lifetime.
Catholic laypeople who call her "Sor Santa" or "Sister Saint" may be assured that though the Church disavows any claims that she is a saint while she is still living, rest assured, it is only a technicality.

Catholic laypeople who call her “Sor Santa” or “Sister Saint” may be assured that though the Church disavows any claims that she is a saint while she is still living, rest assured, it is only a technicality.


When Jep initially meets Cardinal Belluci at a party, though he is told that the Cardinal had formerly been an exorcist in his younger days, when Jep tries to engage Cardinal Belluci in dialogue of a spiritual nature, the Cardinal deflects the line of questioning; at the parties they attend together, the Cardinal’s principal mode of conversation is to recite recipes.
At a later date, attending the dinner party at Jep’s house in which he finally meets the so-called “saint”, the Cardinal appears to be more willing to deal with spiritual topics, but Jep, perhaps to show off for his snobbish, worldly friends, (who, by implication, look down at the Church) says the Cardinal wouldn’t have the answer to his spiritual conundrum anyway.
While the celebrity "cooking Cardinal" recounts a recipe for rabbit, Sister Maria, reputedly 104 years old, and a ball of energy when spending 22-hour days working with the sick, spaces out until Jep's publisher insists that she speak for herself, rather than listen to her promoter.

While the celebrity “cooking Cardinal” recounts a recipe for rabbit, Sister Maria, reputedly 104 years old, and a ball of energy when spending 22-hour days working with the sick, spaces out until Jep’s publisher insists that she speak for herself, rather than listen to her promoter. She claims to eat only boiled roots, because, as she later tells Jep, “roots are important”.


After the party, he approaches the Cardinal in his car as he is waiting to be driven away, but, alas, the Cardinal doesn’t have the time to do much more for him than to make the sign of the cross in his direction.
Though those attending had been told the sister would give him an interview, a member of her entourage initially dominates the conversation and tells Jep and the others that she does not give interviews. When she is given the opportunity and indeed the obligation to speak for herself, she grants Jep an interview of sorts. She tells him that the reason she had been quiet was because as someone who had taken a vow of poverty, poverty was not something one talked about, but that one did. All nuns take a vow of poverty (in addition to one of chastity, and one of obedience), but hers goes deeper than average. One of her voluble handlers had told the party that the sister was not accustomed to sleeping in a bed, but on a cardboard pallet on the floor.
Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience are expected of nuns. But sleeping on cardboard on the floor is a bit more than is usually demanded.

Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience are expected of nuns. But sleeping on cardboard on the floor is a bit more than is usually demanded.


A group of cloistered nuns were given permission to go outdoors and attend the religious conference and have an audience with Sister Maria.  Here, they are shown wearing extra black net veils over their heads and faces in addition to their traditional black habits.  Having been Catholic all my life and having never actually seen nuns do this in public, I have no way of knowing if it is the rubric (accepted practice).

A group of cloistered nuns were given permission to go outdoors and attend the religious conference and have an audience with Sister Maria. here, they are shown wearing extra black net veils over their heads and faces in addition to the traditional black habit. having been Catholic all my life and having never actually seen nuns do this in public, I have no way of knowing if it is the rubric (accepted practice).


As if these, and other practices connected with hardcore extreme asceticism weren’t enough to assure her seeming sainthood, she is in town to attend a religious conference and to engage in a public penitential practice: climbing the Scala Sancta (“holy steps”) on her knees in spite of her obvious old age and presumed physical issues.
Sister climbs the famous Scala Sancta (reputedly the staircase Jesus climbed for his public judgment and senstencing by Pontius Pilate, brought to Rome from the Holy Land by St. Monica).

Sister climbs the famous Scala Sancta (reputedly the staircase Jesus climbed for his public judgment and senstencing by Pontius Pilate, brought to Rome from the Holy Land by St. Monica).


She had a question to ask of Jep: she read his one published work, a novelette called The Human Apparatus, which he regards a mediocre book. She asked him, as many other people have, why he didn’t write another. He gave her a more meditative answer than the rest: that in writing that book, he had been looking for “the great beauty”, but alas, he had failed to find and convey it. He is later shown on the bridge of a boat, after his meeting with the sister. It is uncertain whether he will write another book or make other changes in his life, but he seems to have pulled out of his depression, and is moving full speed ahead.
The last scenes of the movie show the sister, successfully climbing the ancient steps on her knees with difficulty, and smiling as she nears the top.
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