As modern classic The Great Beauty has to make do with just a Foreign Language Film nom, it’s time the Academy’s attitude towards foreign cinema changed.
The contenders for best film at the 2014 Academy Awards are an eclectic bunch to say the least. We’ve got the debauched excess of Wall Street, a rodeo clown pushing illegal aids medication, an A.I. love story and a startling portrayal of slavery; and that’s just four of the nine hopefuls. The line-up is vastly superior to last year’s in all but one respect: this time round the voters seem to have cast a negligent eye over the world cinema stage and failed to acknowledge one particular picture well-deserving of a shot at glory: The Great Beauty.
The 2014 Best Picture line-up is superior to last year’s in all but one respect: voters seem to have cast a negligent eye over world cinema
Paulo Sorrentino’s sixth full-length feature follows Jep Gambardella, an aging “king of the socialites” who, having written a well-received novella in his 20s, passed on a serious literary career to enjoy a life of lavish hedonism. Watching Jep – played with an exquisite dose of sickly class by Sorrentino’s favourite leading man, Toni Servillo (Il Divo) – as he drinks in the party atmosphere with a Cheshire-cat grin is like watching F. Murray Abraham suck the sugar from every sticky sweet of the time in Milos Forman’s unforgettable Amadeus. An unashamed underachiever, Jep seems content pulling on a cigarette and swiveling to the rhythms of the night, while the great beauty, that is love, art and Rome, drifts silently by.
When a relic from the famous journalist’s past appears and reinvigorates his artistic and emotional sensibilities, he is plunged into disarray, embarking on a nostalgic tour of the beautiful city and his once promising, ambitious self. It’s the kind of revelatory change that many of his weathered celebrity friends are undergoing as they migrate from an ugly, over-exuberant middle age to life’s last curtain call. “What’s wrong with feeling nostalgic?” his best friend asks. “It’s the only distraction left for those who’ve no faith in the future.” But for Jep and Sorrentino’s Rome, there is hope.
The Great Beauty is an operatic paean to one of the world’s grandest cities and its myriad cultures. It doesn’t shy from a touch of conceit and is all the more impressive for it. It’s not just a striking export of European cinema – it’s an extravagant masterpiece that should, without doubt, be in the running for major success at the Oscars. In all, just nine foreign language films have apparently warranted consideration for the best film accolade. The excellent Le Grande Illusion first made the list in 1938, a boom followed in the late 60s and early 70s, while Life Is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Letters from Iwo Jima were nominated more recently. The Artist doesn’t count.
Amour’s 2013 Best Film nomination signified a move in the right direction for the Oscars
Of course, these examples all boast an Oscar-friendly characteristic or two that The Great Beauty lacks: Renoir’s masterpiece came at the onset of World War II and ticked every political box imaginable (it was declared the “Cinematographic Enemy Number One” by the Nazis); Crouching Tiger was an innovative visual feast; the crushing Life Is Beautiful was a heartfelt wartime comedy-drama, with a generous cameo for the US army; and the overrated Iwo Jima – another war epic – was directed by Hollywood favourite Clint Eastwood, and it’s American anyway. No major surprises then.
Every so often, though, a mysterious figure like that of the enigmatic Austrian Michael Haneke penetrates the Academy’s equilibrium, and a piece confronting something controversial, like old age and our inevitable dissent towards death, finds itself in the mix. Amour’s 2013 nomination for Best Film signified a move in the right direction for the Oscars; a move that might have blazed a trail for organisations worldwide if made with sincerity.
Aside from Cannes, the trophy-givers of the industry tend to prioritise patting ‘local’ filmmakers on the back ahead of celebrating film as it should, ideally, be celebrated: without prejudice. So Amour’s nod came as a shock. Few films not in the English language have received such widespread acclaim – certainly none so brave and shocking. In what was a mediocre year for American film, Amour’s loss to Argo was a predictable travesty, but its recognition at least hinted at progress.
Trophy-givers of the industry prioritise patting ‘local’ filmmakers on the back ahead of celebrating the films without prejudice
When this year’s nominees were announced and Sorrentino’s majestic tour-de-force was shunned to the murky shadows of the barely credible Foreign Language category, the world’s most famous awards ceremony shed any trace of sincerity and took three clumsy steps back. So why might Amour have captured the voters’ attention while Sorrentino’s sumptuous ode to a decadent Rome enjoyed no such luck? The films share broadly similar concerns: both are about cultured, comfortable people dealing with the imminence of death. The visionary directors have each paved new paths for pathos and asked heavy political questions while doing so, but there are significant differences.
Amour pulls viewers behind closed doors to its characters’ bedside, where the end looms heavy. It is realistic, intimate and notoriously difficult to watch. The Great Beauty, on the other hand, joins its characters with a little more time left on the clock. It is bright, fun and uproariously entertaining; it dedicates greater attention to the public realm than the private and the overriding message has more to do with living than dying.
While the latter might sound the more audience-friendly, it’s Haneke’s end-of-the-road themes that resonate universally (on a passive level, at least). Amour’s preoccupations are just as American as they are French, German or Austrian; its minimalist but frank manner is likely to appeal to film fans across the board. Sorrentino’s poetic approach, while stylistically the more indulgent, is less stark and might be too cryptic to impress en masse. But should issues of accessibility stand in the way of critical success? We need only turn to the impenetrability of the three-time-Oscar-nominated Terence Malik for confirmation that, for American films, they don’t. Maybe Sorrentino’s Euro trashiness just doesn’t translate across the Atlantic.
The bottom line is that the Academy failed to acknowledge a formidable work of genius. The Great Beauty should be reaching a wider audience by the day
For me, The Great Beauty is the more remarkable of the two. Its ecstatic truths are as enriching as any you’re likely to encounter on screen – even if reaching them does mean wading through a little pomp (delicious pomp, at that). And so its omission remains a mystery. There is always the chance that Haneke’s 2013 nomination was just a half-arsed lifetime achievement award, and so hope for a succession of similarly ambitious foreign-language films turning heads in the Best Picture category was unreasonable to begin with.
Of course, there’s no way of knowing the voting figures, so understanding just how overlooked Sorrentino’s epic actually was is impossible. But the bottom line is that this year the Academy has failed to acknowledge a formidable work of genius. The Great Beauty should be nipping at the heels of 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, reaching a wider audience by the day, but instead it’s destined for the relative obscurity of countless Sight & Sound ‘greatest ever’ lists – a slightly harsh sentence for such a monumental achievement.
More on The Great Beauty: Sorrentino’s film demands rejuvenation of the Italian arts
Featured image: Pathe
Inset images: Pathe; Artifical Eye; Pathe