Director Rithy Panh is taking Cambodia to the Oscars for the first time. The Missing Picture, which tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime using clay figurines, has been nominated for best foreign language film. The rival entries are offerings from Italy, Belgium, Denmark and Palestine. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony on March 2, we will look at each rival in turn and assess its chances of taking home the gong. This week, Poppy McPherson reviews Italy’s entry, The Great Beauty.
At the start of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), a Japanese tourist snaps a picture of the Roman skyline on a glorious morning. Then he dies. Whether it’s from fatigue or some kind of aesthetic meltdown is left up to the viewer.
The film then prances into a dizzying whirl through the parties, passions and hideous pretensions of modern Rome as seen through the eyes of ageing hero Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo).
A 65-year-old journalist, Jep wears sharp suits and a cartoonish mask of melancholy as he reflects on his life at the vortex of the city’s upper class social scene. Even the benches he sits on are made from Italian marble. Jep is set up to mirror Rome itself, the seat of an empire fallen into debauched but joyful excess, as is made clear early on, at his Eurotrashy birthday party: an obese, painfully botoxed woman bursts out of a cream cake crying “Happy Birthday Rome”, prompting onlookers to deride her as Lorena, the formerly successful TV presenter “now in complete mental and physical decline”. So too is the collection of Jeps’ reluctantly ageing friends for whom he hosts Bacchanalian parties. “We are all on the brink of despair,” Jep reflects in typically Chekhovian fashion.
Filmmaker Sorrentino (Il Divo) equally mocks and revels in the pretensions of the social circle, which draws in the city’s religious leaders. In a nightmarish sequence, a botox technician is worshipped like a tribal god. A cardinal dishes out cooking tips like Hail Marys. Hilarity ensues when a 104-year-old female saint arrives on the scene, a sequence which culminates in a group of partygoers searching for the decrepit woman when she disappears after dinner: “Where did that bitch get to?”
But for all the humour, there are moments of exquisite pathos: a coked-up Lorena is seen alone at the end of a party gasping as a drop of blood runs from her nostril. A child coerced into performance art by her parents screams as she throws paint on the canvas. Jep’s lover Romana, a stripper newly enfolded into the lives of the rich and fabulous, leaves in disgust. “That girl was crying,” she says. “That girl earns millions,” Gambardella deadpans.
Beautiful even when it’s ugly, but best when it’s sumptuous, the film delights in languorous shots of the cityscape: the sun sets over the Colosseum and glints off the Tiber. One night, Jep and Romana are given the keys to one of Rome’s most beloved buildings, and wander through halls of ancient sculptures. Italy’s extraordinary history is one of the great beauties of the film, alongside sex and an enchanting opera soundtrack. The message is clear. This is Rome: sometimes revolting, always intoxicating, and resolutely one of the world’s greatest cities.
Verdict: Tipped to be the front-runner. Sorrentino practices a visual artistry that is unequalled among the nominees. The soundtrack, too, is masterful. It’s no surprise he took home the Golden Globe for best foreign language film earlier this month, often an indication of Oscar-winners. The film comes at a time when Italy’s political life has never seemed more ugly, so a successor to La Dolce Vita to remind everyone of its glory may seem prudent. But this is cinema for cinema’s sake – a serious subject matter like Panh’s might just edge it out.