‘And when Rome falls – the World.’

Musing on the Eternal City’s place in history in his four-part narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Lord Byron elevates Rome to the centre of all that is treasured and worthy. If the culture of Rome falls down, in Byron’s equation, the rest of the world will follow.

Rome is a city marked by time – its modern face is erected upon layers of Baroque, Renaissance and Classical splendour. This paradox is central to two of Italian cinema’s greatest works, created more than 50 years apart – La Dolce Vita (1960), Federico Fellini’s sublime masterpiece of Roman decadence and ennui, and Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 ode to hedonism and its perils, The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza).

La Dolce Vita and The Great Beauty share world-weary writer protagonists, each disenchanted with the turn their Roman lives have taken. Each film is extremely beautiful to look at it in its use of location shooting and the majesty it attaches to the Italian capital; but beneath these sparkling surfaces lies something much more profound than cinema as travelogue.

In La Dolce Vita Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is adrift in a sea of beauty. A pleasure-seeker, he lives a life with few commitments. A gossip columnist for a Roman scandal rag, Marcello spends his nights scouring the Via Veneto, with his photographer sidekick Paparazzo in tow (the film coined the term paparazzi). They’re looking to catch the rich and famous in compromising, scandalous poses. Marcello’s almost convinced himself, “I’ve got to keep the public informed”, but quietly craves something more than this superficial life.

Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita

Similarly, Sorrentino’s hero, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a clown at the centre of his own carnival. We meet him at his exuberant 65th birthday party, where other Romans in various stages of middle age out-party the young, defiant in the face of inevitable physical decline. Jep wrote a lauded novel 40 years earlier, but now covers ‘arts and culture’ for a magazine. He has never been able to find the time to write another novel. The city’s distractions are prodigious and must be embraced, as a monument early in the film declares, “Roma o morte” (“Rome or death”).

Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella in The Great Beauty

These men are our tour guides through Rome and her pleasures cannot be denied.

La Dolce Vita is an unforgettable film in no small part because of its striking images of late 1950s Italian cool – gorgeous Mastroianni prowling the night in dark glasses, the sensual aura of Anita Ekberg, the expressive, jazzy pulse of Nino Rota’s score. Otello Martelli’s cinematography has a detached beauty, austere in parts, and yet grand and sweeping. We travel to exclusive nightclubs, wild parties at immense castles, the Trevi Fountain at dawn, the Baths of Caracalla. We see the Rome of our imagination and sometimes a Rome that remains unknown.

Jep’s journey also leads us into the city’s hidden spaces – the palaces and gardens of decaying aristocrats. The hushed beauty of these spaces provides moments of respite from the frequently outrageous, but even silent reflection proves able to overwhelm the senses. The Great Beauty opens on the Janiculum, a terraced square on a hill on the west bank of the River Tiber, which offers a bus of Japanese tourists a panorama of the entire city. The sight, in its aesthetic grandeur, proves too luxuriant for one, who collapses and dies.

Despite the tenacity of Rome’s ruins, neither Marcello nor Jep has anything particularly solid underneath his feet. Marcello’s sweet life has soured. The great beauty Jep has been pursuing is an illusion. Rome is a city redolent with its past glories, but magnificent architecture, ageless relics and stunning works of art must now share space with new, vulgar pursuits – celebrity culture, impenetrable theatre, perplexing artworks. Marcello and Jep are caught in this puzzle, and this is ultimately the only tour they can take us on. They are melancholy men troubled by modern life – witnesses to its horrors and inevitably implicated within them. While these are often comically rendered, they are always tinged with the timbre of loss and quiet despair.

Jep lives side-by-side with Rome’s ancient past

La Dolce Vita opens with an extraordinary sequence in which a helicopter rises against the backdrop of the Roman aqueduct and heads to the city centre to deliver a statue of Jesus to the Pope. Marcello, on board to cover the event for his newspaper, tries and fails to pick up some women sunning themselves on a roof that the helicopter hovers above. We sweep over the grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica and Square, reminded that in Rome, the old and the new, the sacred and profane exist in close proximity.

Marcello and the actress, Sylvia Rank (Anita Ekberg), flirt in the Trevi Fountain

The new culture of blank celebrity is epitomised by the arrival of the movie star, Sylvia Rank (Anita Ekberg). An absurd frenzy surrounds her, playing out in the ‘crisis’ about whether to shower her first with flowers or pizza and later, the trifling questions she is asked (“What do you wear to bed?”) when she’s interviewed in her hotel room.

Marcello’s swift infatuation with Sylvia culminates in their famous dawn bathe in the Trevi Fountain. Within this classical architectural structure that has survived the battering of history (most recently the Nazi occupation of Rome), Marcello’s attraction to beautiful, fleeting surfaces reaches its peak.

Similar juxtapositions abound in The Great Beauty. Jep is literally situated on the precipice between the ancient and the new, living in a very beautiful, very modern apartment overlooking the Coliseum. The man is synonymous with the city, a fact that is made clear at his birthday party when a woman emerges from a Coliseum shaped cake and declares, “Happy birthday Jep! Happy birthday Rome!” Jep also lives among a cluster of religious orders and schools; the sacred, in this city, never far away from his voluptuous pursuits.

At the same ancient aqueduct that opens La Dolce Vita, Jep witnesses one of The Great Beauty’s most comical scenes. A naked performance artist inexplicably runs head first into the structure. When Jep asks her to explain her motivations she becomes frustrated and incapable of elucidation. Modern art exists in the moment but leaves no lasting trace.

In the new Rome, pleasures are most often ephemeral and art is meaningless. Image is everything. Jep’s editor, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), reminds him as they eat lunch in her office, “The old is better than the new”, a statement that has dual meaning within the world of Sorrentino’s film. This incongruity is magnified at a tragicomic Botox party where already plastic faces attempt to further stall the inevitability of decay. It is instances such as these, coupled with the crumbling city around them, which contributes to the loneliness and sense of failure these characters endure and their desire to escape.

But breaking away is complicated. Marcello tells his intellectual friend, Steiner (Alain Cuny), that he does a job he doesn’t like, but imagines a future in which he might create a more authentic art. “I need to change environment,” he says, “I’d like to change many things.” Although Steiner blackly warns that the foundations of civilisation itself are crumbling, Marcello departs for the coastal refuge of Fregene with his typewriter to begin his personal transformation. But he doesn’t stay long, lured back to the city and its momentary pleasures. Jep also blames the city for his intellectual and artistic stasis, concluding that he never wrote another book “Because I went out too much at night. Rome makes you waste a lot of time. It’s distracting. Writing requires focus and peace.”

The Great Beauty certainly ends optimistically. From both social and political ruins, the cultural and moral foundations of every great city can be restored and rebuilt. Jep finds new inspiration in his roots and is ready to try writing again. But for Marcello life looks set to continue, more hopelessly than before. After La Dolce Vita’s final orgiastic gathering, Marcello encounters the adolescent girl, Paola (Valeria Ciangottini), who he first met in Fregene. But he fails to remember her. Marcello had once compared her to an Umbrian angel; now he can’t see her purity. “I don’t understand”, he says, raising his hands in defeat as he rejoins his party.

Fellini moves the camera away from Marcello’s cycle of despair, concluding La Dolce Vita with a close-up on Paola’s face – a face that represents renewal for Rome and the world.

A version of this essay was first published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in February 2015 for their season of screenings, ‘ROMA! The Screen Life of the Eternal City.’