Italy cheers Oscar return but critics remain
Mar. 03, 2014
ROME (AP) — Italy celebrated Monday after "The Great Beauty" ended the country's 15-year hiatus and won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. But even the film's muse lamented the fallen Rome it portrays and critics including the Vatican said it was just a cheap Fellini knockoff.
Paolo Sorrentino's homage to Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" and Rome's seductive decadence has divided Italians, with many critics uncomfortable with its indirect reflection of Italy's political and economic stagnation.
But after Sorrentino cemented Italy's place as the country with the most foreign-language Oscars, everyone from the president on down hailed the film as a win for a country struggling through its own existential malaise.
"At this time we have to be thinking about other things, and we're doing so," Premier Matteo Renzi tweeted. "But everyone is part of this Italian moment of pride for Sorrentino and 'The Great Beauty.'"
The film focuses on the life of Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, who on his 65th birthday reflects on how his talents have been paralyzed by Rome's beauty and his ambition to be at the center of the city's high life.
President Giorgio Napolitano said it evoked the "great tradition of Italian film together with a new capacity for creative storytelling for today's reality."
Amid Europe's economic crisis, Italy's culture industry has been hit hard by budget cuts, with the government outsourcing even the restoration of Rome's Colosseum to private sponsors and the capital city itself recently at risk of a financial shutdown.
After his victory, Sorrentino said he wanted to meet with the new culture minister, Dario Franceschini, to discuss film industry policies that he said might force movie theaters to close. "We have to prevent this," he said.
Many Italians have resented the film as a rip-off of Fellini — there's a dwarf, a giraffe and Fellini-esque scenes of Romans behaving badly — but even they seemed to appreciate that it showed off the Eternal City in all its stunning, albeit fading, glory.
Raffaele La Capria, the famous Italian writer on whom Sorrentino is believed to have modeled Jep Gambardella, said the film did indeed echo Fellini.
"But the movies of Fellini were portraying a happy era of success, while the situation described by Sorrentino is like a deteriorated Fellini," La Capria said in an interview Monday. "You don't find that happiness anymore redeemed by the images that was present in Fellini's movies."
Sorrentino thanked several luminaries as his inspiration: Fellini, the Talking Heads, Italian-American director Martin Scorsese and Diego Maradona, the Argentine soccer star who played for Sorrentino's hometown team of Napoli.
He said the musical score — gorgeous choir hymns chased by thumping house music — brought out Rome's inherent contradictions.
"The music in the film is a very simple mix between sacred music and profane music because in my mind, Rome is a city that has this big characteristic," he said.
Given the way the Catholic Church is portrayed, the Vatican newspaper somewhat predictably slammed the film on Monday as a "useless" Fellini copy that has nothing to say and merely indulges in the "aesthetics of advertising spots."
Italy's great directors — De Sica, Fellini, Tornatore and now Sorrentino — have won the country a record 11 foreign Oscars. The last was in 1999 with Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," which scooped three awards.
Selma Jean Dell'Olio, a film critic for Il Foglio daily and on of the Italian critics who disliked the film, said Sorrentino's Oscar wouldn't do anything in the long run.
"It'll make Italy happy for five minutes," Dell'Olio said. "Every time a halfway decent film or one that goes abroad comes around ... they talk about a renaissance. But one swallow doesn't make a spring."
Paolo Santalucia in Rome, Colleen Barry in Milan and Ryan Nakashima in Los Angeles contributed.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield