The Great Beauty of Italy's Foreign-Language Oscar Winner

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is expected to announce the nine semi-finalists for the foreign language Oscar this week out of submissions from a record 83 countries. The list will be narrowed to a final five nominees in January.

Foreign language may not be a category of particular interest to many Americans. But for filmmakers around the world, capturing even a nomination carries prestige and market value, and can mean the difference between securing distribution outside the home territory and financing on a future project — or not.

For a film to make the initial list of entries, it has to jump through several hoops. Some countries host more than one round of voting, and the process regularly generates local controversies and claims of favoritism. Winning filmmakers are celebrated with banner headlines and treated like national heroes.

When Italian director Paolo Sorrentino took home the foreign language Oscar last year for "The Great Beauty" ("La Grande Bellezza"), he was made an honorary citizen of Rome, where his film is memorably set, and received public congratulations from everyone up to the country's prime minister.

The award was widely touted as a turning point for Italian cinema as a whole, coming a full 15 years after its last win for Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful" ("La Vita E Bella"). Italy still holds the record for the most foreign language Oscars of any country, and legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini, whose "La Strada" won the first official foreign language Oscar in 1956, is the most-awarded director in the category.

So it was almost fate when "The Great Beauty," considered a tribute to Fellini and his classic 1960 tour de force "La Dolce Vita," scooped last year's honor.

"The Great Beauty"

Sorrentino's nod to Fellini is narrative as well as stylistic, from the aging-artist protagonist's existential crisis at the heart of the story to the film's ecstatic portrayal of the debauchery of the Roman creative class and its visual obsession with the wildly eccentric.

We meet the chain-smoking, cheshire cat-grinning star of the film, Jep Gambardella (played by Toni Servillo), at his riotous 65th birthday party, then follow him for the nearly 2 1/2 hour movie as he meanders through Rome's outlandish night life. A respected one-time novelist turned journalist, the self-confessed "king of the high life" finds himself muddled by his own age-inspired questioning of the last four decades of his life.

Nostalgic about the passage of time and depressed by the squandered potential all around him, Jep still has one tasseled loafer firmly planted in a decadent lifestyle that rarely gets him to bed before sunrise.

Servillo is no Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini's handsome leading man, but he's attractive in his own Joe Biden way, exuding a sardonic charm in dapper suits and slicked back gray hair.

It's a testament to his authentic performance that we feel any sympathy for this playboy, who never got around to writing a second book and sleeps off his hangovers in a hammock on the terrace of a luxury apartment overlooking the Colosseum.

The historical landmark makes it easy to draw parallels between Jep's decay and Italy's own. Sorrentino spoke with the New York Times last year about his inspiration in Italy's “culture of excess,” which reached a fever pitch during former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's scandal-ridden era, and a general sense that "the nerve centers of the country had fallen asleep on their couches."

And there is excess to spare in this film’s many seemingly whimsical sequences and manipulated dreamscapes, strewn together to convey deeper meaning: a 104-year-old "saint" subsisting on roots, omnipresent nuns attending underground botox parties, a wise dwarf doubling as editor and mother figure, and a giraffe that magically disappears, like life and art and presumably this very movie itself.

"The Great Beauty" can be exasperating, and it's probably not for everyone. But Sorrentino's script clearly pokes fun of the world it (re)creates, mocking artistic artifice and the vacuity of an appearances-driven modern culture. It's this self-awareness that compels you to keep watching, drawn in by Servillo's charismatic presence, the captured beauty of the Roman setting and the script's many riddles.

A voiceover in the final scenes offers some closure, bringing Jep full circle in his musings on life and death, on the world's "inconstant flashes of beauty" and its "wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world."

It's the film and Jep's/Italy's dilemma and the human condition all in one.

"The Great Beauty" is available to stream on Hulu Plus.

 

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