Imagery of Italy clashes with reality of ruins

Rome Letter: an Oscar-winning film may be less relevant than crumbling Pompeii

Paolo Sorrentino’s film ‘La Grande Bellezza’ has won an Oscar at the very moment Rome is teetering on the brink of a Detroit-style bankruptcy.

Paolo Sorrentino’s film ‘La Grande Bellezza’ has won an Oscar at the very moment Rome is teetering on the brink of a Detroit-style bankruptcy.


The irony of the moment was so strong that even newly appointed arts minister Dario Franceschini could not resist. In a tweet to celebrate the Oscar won this week by Paolo Sorrentino’s film, La Grande Bellezza , the minister wrote: “During the night Sorrentino won the Oscar and another wall came down in Pompeii. It’s a lesson: believe in the beauty we have and protect it with pride.”

There you have it. The foreign eye is understandably awestruck by the towering beauty of the place, be it Pompeii or, in the case of La Grande Bellezza , Rome. The Italian eye knows all too well the place is falling to bits.

It is obvious that Dubliners, Londoners, Parisians or the inhabitants of any great city might react cautiously to glamorous screen treatment of their home town. Breathtaking cinematic beauty is one thing, but tell that to the guy stuck in a four-hour traffic jam on the city ring road.

Ironically, La Grande Bellezza , with its beguiling use of modern and ancient Rome as a cinematographic backdrop of decadence, has won an Oscar at the very moment the Eternal City is teetering on the brink of a Detroit-style bankruptcy.

The reality is that five years of molto allegro if not corrupt centre-right administration has left Rome with €816 million debt.

Salvation funds
Just about the first issue across the desk of newly installed Prime Minister Matteo Renzi last week was a “Save Rome” decree, urgently called for by current centre-left mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino.

Just about the first issue across Franceschini’s arts desk will be the Pompeii conundrum or how to avail of €105 million of EU funds to maintain a site that has experienced 29 “incidents” in the last five years.

The money for Pompeii is there all right but the complications of Byzantine bureaucracy tend to make it almost untouchable.

For example, every project has to go out to public tender. This is normal enough but the problem comes when the company which has won the contract is prevented from starting work because a rival company goes to the regional appeals court to contest the assignation.

Even when the firm finally gets on to the site, work inevitably moves slowly thanks to its delicate nature but also thanks to the fact the Naples anti-Mafia squad drops by at least once a month to check no Camorra-run firm has slipped in. Meanwhile, Pompeii has one year in which to make use of the EU’s €105 million.

Cinematic tradition
All of this, however, is not to say that the Oscar triumph of La Grande Bellezza has not been enthusiastically received, especially as it is 15 years since Italy last won an Oscar – for Roberto Benigni’s La Vita è Bella. Renzi called this “an Italian moment of pride”, while President Giorgio Napolitano said the film “evoked the great tradition of Italian film”.

It is that very “tradition”, though, which tends to divide critics. In his acceptance speech, Sorrentino thanked the legendary Federico Fellini, inevitably prompting comparisons between himself and the post-war maestro.

Some do indeed see Sorrentino’s rambling, no-storyline film as a latter-day, Fellini-style portrayal of the Berlusconi era. Others such as Selma Jean Dell’Olio, film critic for daily Il Foglio , suggest that foreigners love the film because, mistakenly, “they think it is saying something about Italy”.

That argument could run and run but a clue might come from Sorrentino himself. In an interview I did with him five years ago, in relation to his film on seven times prime minister Giulio Andreotti, he said: “Italian politics are so complex and intricate that they are difficult for Italians to follow, let alone the Irish . . .

Application of power
“For me, it’s much more important that the film prompts a reflection on how politicians use power . . .

“Italy hovers between being a modern, developed democracy and a country that seems much more like the Third World . . . Italian politicians think they are a pillar of seriousness in the country but in fact they are grotesque – they don’t realise that they have become a cabaret act.”

Perhaps La Grande Bellezza is partly a further portrayal of that cabaret act.

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