Sorrentino's 'The Great Beauty' divides Italian critics even as it racks up awards abroad
This undated file photo made available by the press office Punto e Virgola shows, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino on the set of his movie "La grande bellezza" (The Great Beauty). (AP / Gianni Fiorito)
Colleen Barry, The Associated Press
Published Friday, February 28, 2014 1:47PM EST
MILAN, Italy -- Paolo Sorrentino's homage to Federico Fellini, "The Great Beauty" has divided critics in Italy even as it has racked up awards abroad.
The film is nominated for an Oscar for best film in a foreign language, gaining momentum as it snatched a Golden Globe and a British Film Academy award in the weeks running up to the movie industry's biggest night: Sunday's Academy Awards.
It has raked in more than 8 million euros ($11 million) at the Italian box office, making it the most successful Sorrentino film. It also topped Italian art house movies last year -- but was still well below Hollywood blockbusters.
"The Great Beauty" depicts Rome in all its decadent glory, with luxurious focus on the city's visual wonders as well as the malaise of some of its inhabitants, a mood that can be seen as a reflection of the nation's economic and political stagnation.
The film focuses on the life of Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, who reflects on the occasion of his 65th birthday on how his talents have been subsumed by Rome's seductive beauty and his ambition to be at the centre of the high life.
"Decadence? Please, Rome has been decadent since the Caesars," said Selma Jean Dell'Olio a film critic for Il Foglio, who counts herself among those not wowed by the movie.
"Rome is gorgeous," she said. "It is hard to get it down badly, and I think that is what foreigners love about the movie. They think it is saying something about Italy, and it is not saying anything about Italy."
Abroad, the movie has been praised as an "astonishing cinematic feast" by Variety and as "a deliriously alive move," by the New York Times.
Italian film journalist Hakim Zejjari said the hostility of some Italian critics became clear to him at the premier in Cannes, where he watched it sitting among foreign and Italian journalists.
"During the film, the foreign journalists were emotional or laughed at the right moments," he said. "But I watched the Italian journalists, and they were angry. They felt attacked, and they were furious because they expected a remake of La Dolce Vita. Instead, it's a movie that talks about the immobilization of the county."
Despite her criticism of the film, Dell'Olio believes it deserves to win the Oscar for best foreign film.
"Films that split opinions tend to last. It would be just a terrific upset if it didn't win," she said.
Sorrentino himself says the movie isn't meant to be about Italy.
"It's about the miseries, splendors, joys of a city," Sorrentino told The Associated Press after winning the Golden Globe. "It is only incidental that it concentrates on Italy, or Rome. It's about human beings who are put in contrast with the beauty of the city and of the country. It's about the empathy between the viewer and the characters, and not between the viewers and the city."
Sorrentino isn't bothered by criticism.
"It is better not to have unanimity," he claimed. "It is better to have doubts about a film."
Italian critics have mentioned "The Great Beauty," as a modern-day update to Fellini's classic "La Dolce Vita." For Sorrentino, the reference is a compliment.
"I hope I didn't imitate him," Sorrentino said. "It would have been crazy to imitate Fellini. Fellini was a great interpreter of humankind. I, in my small way, tried to do the same thing."
The last Italian film to win an Oscar was Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," which scooped three Oscars in 1999, including best foreign film.