The annual best foreign language film award in the Oscars is
considered a hangover from the days when world cinema needed
special recognition amid the dominance of Hollywood.
But like many other areas of business and life, films have become
globalised and audiences everywhere are now able to pick from
a huge range.
Nevertheless, a glance back over the Oscars in recent years
shows an impressive list of non-English films selected as
nominees. Each year, individual countries submit an entry and
a shortlist of five is chosen.
The result is a feast of suggestions for any serious
filmgoer. For example, the 2011 winner, A Separation (Iran), was NZ Catholic’s best film of the year and 2012’s Amour (France) was also outstanding.
Only one of this year’s nominees, Denmark’s The Hunt (Jagted), has been seen in New Zealand so far.
The good news is this year’s winner, Italy’s The Great Beauty
(La Grande Bellezza — Palace Films), is now in cinemas and
will wow viewers familiar with the heyday of Fellini, De Sica
and Antonioni.
In fact, Fellini won the first foreign language Oscar when
they were relaunched in 1956, with La Strada, and again in
1957 with Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria). He won two
more in 1963 (8½) and 1974 (Amarcord).
By contrast, Antonioni’s highly impressionistic films
cut no ice with the Academy Award judges, although he was
a film festival favourite.
The Great Beauty combines the style of both of these masters
as director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) takes his audience
on a sumptuous visual tour of Rome as seen through the
eyes of a jaded journalist and socialite (Toni Servillo), who
in much earlier days wrote an acclaimed novel.
His apartment overlooks the Colosseum and he indulges
in nightly soirées that range from demonstration art,
knife-throwing displays and an elaborate 65th birthday party.
But don’t expect a normal narrative. The film opens with
an inscrutable prologue in which a Japanese tourist collapses
while a cannon is fired at the Janiculum Hills, no
doubt to invoke the famous saying, “see Rome and die”.
The spectacular monuments of the Risorgimento known to
all visitors follow in a series of episodes along with much highminded but pretentious literary chatter, immaculate fashions
and shallow romantic encounters.
Naturally, this is about the life of decadence — so well
depicted in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) — and the search for
meaning, prompted by the death of the journalist’s first love. Every scene is framed like a work of art (thanks to cinematographer Luca Bigazzi) and is accompanied by choral
works, which replace the need for dialogue.
Other uncanny images involve exotic animals and religious
imagery. The Church is often a target for parody in Italian films and this is no exception. A cardinal talks incessantly about his favourite recipes, while an elderly St Teresa-ish nun climbs a stone staircase on her knees.
Taken in isolation, these scenes are absurdist, but in the context of Sorrentino’s leisurely pace they amount to a rare cinematic experience.
Rating: Mature audiences; 141 minutes.