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Dramatized episodes from the poet's life, 25 March 2014

Satyajit Ray's 54-minute black-and-white documentary on the life of Indian Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore was made to coincide with and celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Tagore's birth. The film won the President's Gold Medal Award, New Delhi, 1961 and the Golden Seal, Locarno, 1961. Tagore, a poet, playwright, painter, and composer, was the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 "because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West."

The film is composed of dramatized episodes from the poet's life and archived images and documents. The documentary covers his childhood, marriage, trip to England in 1912 where he renounced his knighthood in protest to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. Also depicted is Tagore's lifelong dedication to education and his creation of Visva-Bharati University and his travels around the world to collect money for his school. It is a straightforward factual documentary that unfortunately does not include any of Tagore's poetry because Ray did not believe that any English translation did it justice.

In my view, however, the film is the poorer for it and lacks a lyrical touch even though Ray has been reported to have said in the biography Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye by W. Andrew Robinson, "Ten or twelve minutes of it are among the most moving and powerful things that I have produced." Unfortunately, it is very difficult to assess its true quality because the print is badly damaged and could not be restored by the Academy Film Archive which restored nineteen of Ray's films.

Two (1965) (TV)
Meaningful and even profound, 25 March 2014

Some directors can take three hours to say nothing. Others such as Charles Burnett and Satyajit Ray can say something meaningful and even profound in less than twenty minutes. An example is Ray's 12-minute short Two: A Film Fable, a story of two young boys who live close to each other but exist in different worlds. Ray was asked to make a TV short for Esso World Theater in English, but he chose instead to make a silent film that speaks volumes about the reality of class distinctions in India in the 1960s.

In the film, a young boy from a wealthy family (Ravi Kiran), is alone in his house trying to amuse himself with the toys that surrounds him. When he hears a flute playing he goes to the window and sees a small dark Indian boy from a neighboring slum standing in the field adjacent to his back yard. The game they play is known pejoratively as "one-upmanship." When he hears the flute, he joins in with a toy trumpet that drowns out the flute. When the poor boy gets his drum, the rich boy counters with his own tin drum.

When the Indian boy starts to fly his paper kite with a big smile on his face, his combatant friend shoots it down with an air gun and he leaves dejectedly. The rich boy returns to his Westernized wind-up robots and Mickey Mouse hat and thinks he is the winner until he again hears the plaintive sounds of the flute while sitting in his room alone. The look on his face tells us that he knows that he has won the battle but lost the war. The film may be suggestive of the director's attempt to paint a picture of the isolation of Westernized upper-class Indians as contrasted with the freedom of India's common people.

Intimate and lyrical, 25 March 2014

Located on the border between Nepal and the state of Sikkim in India, Kanchenjungha (also spelled Kangchenjunga) is the highest mountain in India and the third highest in the world. That its setting for a film would be lovely is a given, but the fact that the mountain is often covered in mist makes it a perfect metaphor for the obstacles that can cloud people's vision. Such is the theme of Satyajit Ray's 1962 film Kanchenjunga, a look at changing values in the early days of Indian independence. It is a film that is firmly fixed in the Ray tradition: slow moving, intimate, and lyrical, filled with conflicted characters, social commentary, exquisite music, and enchanting children.

Kanchenjunga deals with parallel stories and the interconnectedness of people's lives, a format that would be even more in vogue fifteen years later. Focused on the upper middle-class Choudhuri family vacationing in Darjeeling, the story unfolds in real time, taking place in one day. The father Indranath (Chhabi Biswas), who has nothing but admiration for the former British rulers, has played the system to reach his position as the powerful head of five companies. The pompous patriarch usually gets his way and both he and his normally submissive wife Labanya Roy (Karuna Bannerjee) expect his daughter Monisha (Alaknanda Roy) to follow his wishes and marry a dull but rising bureaucrat named Bannerjee (N. Viswanathan) who, if nothing else, can provide his bride with security.

What Indranath has not counted on, however, is that Monisha has a mind of her own and an old-fashioned idea that love should play a part in whom you marry. Labanya asserts herself as well, telling Monisha that she has to make up her own mind. The story takes place as the characters walk along the scenic hill station in late afternoon waiting for the clouds to clear so they can get a good view of the mountains. Another prominent player, Ashoke (Arun Mukherjee), a 24-year-old working class man from Calcutta who had tutored Indranath's son Anil when he was a little boy, is on vacation with his uncle. The semi-comic uncle wants him to cozy up to Indranath, envisioning the possibilities for a job paying 300 rupees a month for his nephew. Ashoke takes the opportunity and meets the tycoon but is treated like a servant, Indranath asking him to go to his room to bring him his red muffler.

The young man gets the last laugh, however, when he turns down his offer of a job after a long monologue about how successful he has become. More importantly to Ashoke, however, is his meeting with Indranath's daughter Monisha. Though they come from different economic levels of society, their unpretentiousness draw them to each other and their budding relationship holds promise for the future. Other characters are Monisha's older sister, Anima (Anubha Gupta), and her husband Shankar (Subrata Sen Sharma), who are trying to patch up a relationship that has broken down as a result of his drinking and gambling, and her long-term affair with another man, but they are bound together by the love of their young daughter who rides a horse around the hill during the entire afternoon.

These sub-dramas play out against the background of the imposing mountains. As evening approaches and the sky clears, the characters, liberated by the beauty that surrounds them, are able to see with clarity a society changing before their eyes and how their lives have been forever affected. Kanchenjungha is Ray's first color film and one that he produced and directed, wrote the original screenplay, and composed the music, an impressive feat. Though none of his subsequent work ever reached the stratospheric heights of The Apu Trilogy, the mark of a great director is when one of his obscure, minor films can fit into the category of a masterpiece. It's a good fit for Kanchenjungha.

Elusive and impenetrable poetry, 19 March 2014

Two exact look-alikes, the Polish Weronika and the French Véronique, inhabit the world of Krzysztof Kieslowski's memorable The Double Life of Véronique. Both women are played by the same actress, the radiant Iréne Jacob, winner of the Best Actress award at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Born on the same day, they have green eyes and dark hair, congenital heart problems, and are talented singers, one a music teacher, the other a choir soprano, though each has a somewhat different personality. By its very nature, the story defies rational explanation and Kieslowski does not offer any, but the premise suggests that the separate self is an illusion, a projection of mind rather than an inherent expression of ultimate reality.

Shot in Krakow, Poland and Paris, France, the film is suffused with the stunning cinematography of Slawomir Idziak and a sublime score by Zbigniew Preisner beginning with the song she sung by Weronica at her debut concert in Krakow. Weronica's story fills the movie's first thirty minutes. Weronica's exuberance and childlike innocence are captured in the film's early moments when, after an outdoor choir performance, she remains standing wide-eyed in the pouring rain, looking up at the sky, as the others run for shelter.

Strangely though, Weronica tells others about an odd feeling that she is not alone, a feeling that is reinforced when she catches a glimpse of her doppelganger, Véronique, in the center of a Krakow square photographing a political protest demonstration (though she does not pursue her or mention the incident to family or friends). Though Weronica's desire to be a pianist was thwarted in an accident, her beautiful singing voice enables her to win a competition to join a musical company. As the young singer begins to perform her first concert, however, her heart condition sadly prevents her from continuing and the film shifts the remainder of its attention to Véronique.

As we first see Véronique, she is in the middle of making love but suddenly bursts into tears without explanation, the incident occurring at the same moment when Weronika suffers serious heart problems at her concert in Krakow. Véronique has given up a promising singing career because she intuitively knows that it is "wrong for her" and instead becomes a music teacher of young children. During this same period she also schedules a cardiogram as if she has had some kind of warning. The film is propelled by the emotions Véronique is experiencing: a strange feeling of being alone in a suddenly uncertain world and an unexplained sense of loss.

The mystery deepens when she begins to receive enigmatic packages in the mail from Alexandre (Philippe Volter), a puppeteer whose exquisite marionette performance she has seen and whose gifts are tied to objects from his children's stories. Concluding from listening to a cassette tape that was recorded at the Saint Lazare train station, she meets Alexandre, but her expectations of love are thwarted by his mundane reasons for the subterfuge, although it serves to enhance her sense of closeness with Weronica.

Though it is tempting to search for some sort of explanation, The Double Life of Veronique is better off not being analyzed but should be savored for its elusive and impenetrable poetry. If it has any point to make other than its captivating quality as a work of art, it may be that, in life, energy is wasted in trying to figure things out and that the only thing that makes sense is to submerge ourselves in its beauty and succumb to its mystery.

Entertaining, thought-provoking, and beautifully realized, 19 March 2014

Everyone has an opinion about what constitutes good parenting. Does it boil down to rules and regulations, pushing a child to excel, letting them just enjoy themselves, or the amount of time you spend with them? These issues are on the table in Hirokazu Koreeda's latest child-centered film, Like Father, Like Son, winner of the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Ryoto Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a somewhat aloof architect who works long hours at his job, leaving little time for his six-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Ryoto and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) live in a luxury Tokyo apartment that relatives tell them looks like a hotel.

Keita is comfortable and apparently quite happy, enjoying a close and caring relationship with his mother, even though his father is not always around. Ryoto loves Keita, however, and wants the best for him, pushing him to excel in academics and music, but his character is painted in such broad strokes that he doesn't come across as truly caring. The family's comfortable world is turned upside down, however, when the Nonomiya's receive a phone call from the hospital telling them that Keita is in fact not their biological son, that testing has revealed that two boys were switched at birth, presumably by accident.

Both curious and anxious, Ryoto and Midori make plans to visit their biological son and here Koreeda draws a sharp contrast between the two families. Yudai (Lily Franky), a good-natured, playful storekeeper and his wife Yukari (Yoko Maki), are working class people, living in the rear of a general goods store with their three children, a boy named Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), and his younger brother and sister. Although tongue in cheek, Yudai tells his wife that his philosophy of life is "I always say, put off to tomorrow, what ever you can." When the mistake of the hospital is realized, the shocked families must decide how (and if) they are going to exchange sons.

The upper class Ryoto says that it "now makes sense" why his son Keita is not talented and ambitious like himself, a statement that is very hurtful to Midori. His desire is to continue the bloodline, urged also by his own father who suggests that he should make every effort to raise both boys. While this may sound good in theory, when Ryoto raises the possibility with Yudai and Yukari, the reaction is one of deep insult and Ryoto has to go to Plan B. While awaiting a financial settlement from the hospital, the two families agree to let the boys come for a visit to gradually get to know their real parents, at first for one day, then later on the weekends.

Awkwardly, Ryoto tells Ryu to call them father and mother, reserving daddy and mommy for Yudai and Yukari, the only parents he has truly known. Friction begins to develop between the parents when Yudai let's Ryoto know that he should spend more time with his son. Though both children adjust, Ryu expresses a longing to return to daddy and mommy. Ryoto wants the exchange of children to work out but Midori misses Keita and reacts with anger when she perceives that her husband blames her for what has happened. The exchange of the boys becomes a catalyst for Ryoto to look at his life and see what has been missing in his approach to parenting and he has the courage to make changes.

Like Father, Like Son is a riveting experience that once again demonstrates that the performances Koreeda can elicit from children are little short of amazing. Like Father, Like Son can meander, has some formulaic aspects, and does not have the weight of some of his earlier films, yet it is an entertaining, thought-provoking, and beautifully realized two hours at the movies.

Dad (2010)
A work of originality and sensitivity, 13 March 2014

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return" – from the song "Nature Boy" by Eden Ahbez Though Vlado Skafar is a Slovenian director of growing stature, he sees himself as primarily a poet and a writer and his films indeed have the quality of literature. Letter to a Child, chosen by Olaf Muller of Film Comment magazine as one of the ten best of 2008, was a stirring testament to the adventure of life in a series of heartfelt monologues prompted by the director's questions to a group of young children, teenagers, young adults, parents, and an elderly couple.

Skafar's latest film Dad (Oca), his first fictional feature, is one that defies easy description. Shot in a dreamy, poetic, and almost mystical style by cinematographer Marko Brdar, Dad focuses on a young boy (Sandi Salamon), about ten or eleven, who spends a summer day getting to know his father (Miki Ros) after what appears to be a long separation.

Filmed on a very limited budget and cast with non-professional actors, Dad is set in Prekmurje, a Slovenian region near the city of Murska Sobota in eastern Slovenia not far from the Hungarian border, an area that Skafar says are the locations of his childhood. The first Slovenian film to screen in the Critics Week sidebar of the Venice International Film Festival, the 71-minute film begins in silence on a Sunday afternoon in a wooded area close to a lake. There is no dialogue for the first five minutes, only the sounds of nature. As we watch water spiders chase each other, a young boy stands with his father fishing on the river bank.

As the conversation between father and son tentatively emerges, it appears as if they are getting to know each other, perhaps for the first time. Rather than talk about superficialities, each explores their strongest desires and deepest fears. They talk to each other with respect about things not normally discussed between parents and children, such as what they are feeling at the present moment and their fears of death. Above all, they listen to each other. When the boy brings up the subject of wood, the creation of his own alphabet, a book he is reading called "Horoscope," instead of feigning interest, the father asks probing questions to further explore his son's thoughts and feelings.

There are no cuts in the film, only fades to black and the gradual blending of images as one scene seamlessly folds into the next. As Škafar describes it, "there is enough time in-between to allow the soul of one image to mingle with that of the other," and the effect is magical. Stretched out on the grass eating sandwiches, lying side by side, or running and playing together as if in a ballet, they reach out to each other through trial and error in their longing to establish a relationship. In one sequence, we hear the disembodied voices of the characters, words that may be from another time, their internal thoughts of the moment, or an experience outside of time altogether.

In the last part of the film, the idyllic setting of Sunday is transformed into the gritty reality of Monday as the scene shifts to a recently unemployed factory worker speaking to a group of men, bitterly questioning the ability of her family to survive the layoff, an incident based on actual events that occurred in Prekmurje at the start of filming. The coda is Skafar's attempt to show how current political and social issues can affect personal relationships, especially the father's recollection of his former job as a forester and his concern for his son's future. Dad is a stunning achievement, a work of originality and sensitivity which, in its intimacy and depth, can easily be spoken of in the same breath as the films of Tarkovsky and Sokurov. Without question, Vlado Skafar is a director to watch closely.

A film with a human element at its core, 2 March 2014

In the Giant's garden in Oscar Wilde's children's story The Selfish Giant, it is always winter. Having built a wall to keep children from playing in his garden, there are no longer any peach trees, flowers, or birds, only perpetual hail and snow. Spring has forgotten this garden as it also seems to have forgotten the industrial town of Bradford in West Yorkshire, England, the setting for Clio Barnard's authentic and visceral The Selfish Giant. Nominated for a BAFTA award for Best British Film of 2013, The Selfish Giant is in the tradition of Ken Loach, Shane Meadows and others, films of social realism that show the world there is more to merry old England than Stratford-on-Avon and Westminster Abbey.

Though the film is about economic and social dysfunction, it is not all grim. Even in the metallic gray of the rotting town as captured by cinematographer Mike Eley, scenes of horses grazing in a tranquil field, oblivious to the surrounding train tracks and power lines, add a touch of timeless beauty. The real standout, however, are the remarkably convincing performances of Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), 13-year-old best friends whose connection is born out of their desperate need for affection. Arbor, a pint-sized, hyperactive, sharp-tongued ADHD sufferer, lives with his mother (Rebecca Manley) and older brother (Elliott Tittensor) who sells his A.D.H.D. medication to pay off his drug debts. His father is nowhere to be seen.

"They sleep on the living room sofas but are better off than Swifty who lives with his eight siblings in a home lacking in the means to support them. Swifty's mother played by Siobhan Finneran, is caring, though she is intimidated by her overbearing husband (Steve Evets) who supports the family by renting furniture from discount stores and selling them for cash at inflated prices." Struggling to keep his aggressive behavior in check, Arbor relies on the heavy-set Swifty, a kinder gentler soul with a love for horses to calm him down. Banned from school as a result of fighting to defend themselves against bullies, the boys use a horse and cart to scavenge scrap metal, pots and pans, as well as copper cabling from telecom, railway, and power utilities.

To earn money to help support their families, they sell the scrap to an exploitative but fatherly local junk dealer (Sean Gilder), incongruously called Kitten but given to bursts of anger. In one of the visual highlights of the film, an illegal harness drag race is run on a major highway with serious money at stake. Recognizing Swifty's way with horses, Kitten offers to let him ride one of his horses in the next race. Feeling his friend drifting away from him, Arbor concocts a potentially lucrative plan to steal or collect electrical power cables, but the adventure leads to unforeseen consequences. Much of the dialogue without subtitles is indecipherable due to the heavy Yorkshire accents, but consists mostly of non-stop swearing anyway.

What does come through loud and clear, however, without the need for subtitles is the closeness of the boys' friendship. Although they have different temperaments, they are connected by a struggle for survival and a drive to preserve whatever joy is left in their childhood. There are definitely economic and political overtones in The Selfish Giant, yet it is not about politics or even selfishness, in spite of the title. It is a film with a human element at its core and we care about the characters as Barnard obviously does as well. According to the director, the film "is about what we have lost…and what we need to value and hold on to." It is also a film about the resilience of two boys determined to avoid becoming objects like the discarded scrap they collect.

Gloria (2013/II)
3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Gloria is a "force of nature", 23 February 2014

The big revelation in Chilean director Sebastian Lelio's Gloria is that older people are still interested in sex. Who would've thunk it? We thought they had moved on to other interests. In any event, in the superb performance by Paulina Garcia for which she won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013, 58-year-old Gloria is definitely a "force of nature." Gloria (who is in every scene in the film) shows her zest for life by going to singles clubs on the weekends, dancing, drinking alcohol, smoking pot, singing along with the car radio, and having sex (not that there's anything wrong with that). You won't catch her doing old fogy things, such as body, mind, and spirit-nurturing type of stuff (except for a halfhearted stab at yoga).

She is, nonetheless, a courageous woman who fights off loneliness with tenacity remarkable at any age. Unfortunately, she also proves that she can be just as self-absorbed, unable to communicate, and inconsiderate as anyone, regardless of age or condition. Divorced for many years, Gloria lives alone in a small apartment in Santiago where, after working all day, she has to contend with the noise of a drug addict who lives upstairs. Her relationship with her adult children, Pedro (Diego Fontecilla), who has an infant and daughter Ana (Fabiola Zamora), who is pregnant with the child of her Swedish boyfriend, is good, at least on the surface.

The fact that she has to keep reminding them to call her, however, raises questions about how close their relationship is. One weekend at the dance club, Gloria connects with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), an ex-Navy officer who has been divorced for one year, and they begin a relationship that seems promising. Rodolfo owns a small amusement park where he and Gloria have fun together, shooting each other with paint guns and bungee jumping. His continuing close relationship with his ex-wife and two daughters whom he supports financially, however, begins to get in the way and their good times together come to a sudden halt when Rodolfo meets Gloria's children and somewhat strange ex-husband Gabriel (Alejandro Goic) at Pedro's birthday party.

Feeling ignored to the point of being invisible, Rodolfo reacts to Gloria and Gabriel's reminiscing about the past and showing each other photos from the family album by abruptly getting up and leaving. After avoiding his phone calls for what appears to be several days, they finally meet but neither takes responsibility for what happened. Although he tries to explain what prompted his action at the party, she turns a deaf ear and continues to blame him for being "rude." A similar scenario plays out when they reestablish their friendship and spend a weekend at an upscale resort where the director does not flinch from showing their naked bodies in bed.

When Rodolfo receives a phone call from one of his daughters telling him that his ex-wife just had a serious accident, he is anxious to go and be with her. Instead of letting him know that it is okay with her if he chooses to go, Gloria tells him to let go of his past and be in present time. Without regards for his being upset at the moment, she presses him to agree to go with her on a ten-day vacation to Cuba. Though it is not surprising when he again walks out and leaves her alone, it is apparent that open and honest communication would have worked better. Again, blaming him for being rude, she cuts off all communications and petulantly unleashes a paint-gun attack on his home.

Without question, accolades are warranted for Garcia's performance and she deserves all the awards and nominations she has received. Gloria can be charming and the world could certainly use more free spirits, yet, while many will cheer her actions with a "you go girl" mindset, a distinction needs to be made between an independent spirit and those who behave in a juvenile manner. Unfortunately, however, Lelio does not make any. It is left to Gloria to finally figure out the difference between pleasure and joy.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Does not draw us deeply enough into its mysteries, 16 February 2014

Because of its complex and introspective nature, the works of the great French novelist Marcel Proust have been difficult to translate to the screen in spite of some very fine attempts by Raul Ruiz and others. Chantal Akerman's La Captive is no exception. Inspired by the fifth of seven volumes of Proust's epic novel In Search of Lost Time, the film captures the obsessive quality of the relationship between Simon (Stanislaus Merhar) and Ariane (Sylvie Testud) (Marcel and Albertine in the novel), but is unable to project onto the screen the novel's exquisite prose, psychological subtlety, or depth of feeling. While Simon is given a thoughtful treatment, he comes across more as strange and unpleasant than the deeply sensitive, poetic young man of the book.

La Captive begins at home with Simon viewing films of Ariane and some friends during their summer together in Normandy. Repeatedly viewing the footage, he carefully utters the words "I really like you," but it is unclear if the sentiment is his, or if he is vocalizing what he imagines to be the thoughts of his mistress. Set in Paris, Akerman updates the story from its turn of the century milieu and transports it to the modern era with automobiles and well-lit boulevards filled with traffic replacing the horse and carriage. Simon is a somber, well-to-do young man who lives in an ornate Paris apartment with his grandmother (Francoise Bertin), housekeeper Francoise (Liliane Rovére), and girlfriend Ariane (Sylvie Testud).

Though they claim to love each other, each keeps their distance. Ariane lives in an adjacent room and only comes to see Simon when he sends for her in an ongoing ritual. Dialogue is sparse and mostly consists of Simon asking Ariane questions that elicit noncommittal responses such as "if you like," "I can't say," or "you think so?" Mimicking Bressonian models, the actor's facial expressions range from enigmatic to blank, and, aside from some perfunctory kissing, the only time that passion shows up is when Simon rubs up against Ariane's body while she is asleep (or pretending to be). When Simon demands to know what Ariane is thinking, she replies, "If I had any thoughts, I'd tell you—but I don't." Some situations would be comical if they were not sad. As Simon watches Ariane from an adjoining bathroom while sitting in his tub, he tells her how much he admires the odors between her legs and says that if it weren't for his illnesses, he would rather that she would never wash. On another occasion, he probes to find out the number of lies she has told him, insisting that two lies are not enough, he wants at least four. The jealous and insecure Simon has accumulated evidence in his own mind that Ariane is physically attracted to women but it is not made clear (either in the novel or the film) whether his suspicions are real or imagined.

Nonetheless, Simon is preoccupied by the part of Ariane's life that he believes she is withholding from him, following her in an art gallery and physically removing her from a performance of Carmen at the Trocadero out of his fear of her friendship with the actress Lea (Aurora Clément). When Simon is unable to leave the house because of an asthmatic condition, he assigns their mutual friend Andrée (Olivia Bonamy) to track her whereabouts and report back to him. He even goes so far as to question lovers Sarah (Bérénice Bejo) and Isabelle (Anna Mouglalis) about what they think about when they make love.

Although the characterizations in La Captive are very real and quite haunting, the film covers only a small portion of Proust's fifth volume, omitting the colorful characters that make it so special: Charlus, Morel, the Verdurin's, Brichot, and Mme de Guermantes to name a few, and there is no hint of the music, society, and themes of memory, nature, and awareness of time and place that dominate the narrative. Though the pacing is deliberately slow to capture the enigmatic quality of the relationship, the film, while absorbing, is static and does not draw us deeply enough into its mysteries to compensate for its dramatic inertness.

6 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
A feast for the eyes, the ears, and the soul, 9 February 2014

Russian composer Vladimir Martynov said, "A man touches the truth twice. The first time is the first cry from a new born baby's lips and the last is the death rattle. Everything between is untruth to a greater or lesser extent." Many Hindu and Buddhist teachings also refer to the world as being Maya or illusion. According to French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, "Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It's a novel, just a fictitious narrative." In Paolo Sorrentino's stunning The Great Beauty, novelist Jep Ganbardella (Toni Servillo), unable to write another book since his successful first novel, The Human Apparatus, agrees, saying "After all... it's just a trick. Yes, it's just a trick." To discover that, however, he has to move past "the chitter-chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear, the haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty, and then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity, all buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world." Winner of the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film and Italy's entry for the 2014 Oscars in the same category, The Great Beauty is a character study of the decadent elites of modern Rome and by extension, contemporary society, yet it also moves beyond that to examine eternal themes of death, love, beauty, and the complexity of life and art.

The film begins on a jarring and surreal note and continues in an episodic Fellini-like vein throughout its two and one-half hour runtime - the sweet life revisited. After snapping a picture of the skyline with its beautiful domes and bell towers, a Japanese tourist visiting Janiculum Hill suddenly collapses and dies. We are suddenly shifted to a raucous 65th birthday party for Gambardella on a terrace opposite the Roman Colosseum where seemingly all the socialites, would-be artists, and pseudo-elites have gathered, perhaps the one-percenters of Roman society. One almost expects to see an "Occupy Via Veneto" demonstration in the streets below.

As Jep moves in and out and around the Roman high life, Sorrentino's acerbic put-downs and satire of the rich and famous travel with him. Now a journalist for a Vanity-Fair style culture magazine, he watches a performance artist run headlong into a brick wall, sustaining a deep cut on her head, then later interviews her, doggedly asking her to explain what she meant by "feeling vibrations." He waits his turn for a plastic surgeon at a Botox injection session, takes in a performance of a man throwing knives at a frightened-looking woman, observes a live giraffe at a historic site in rehearsal for a magic show, looks at a photographer's self-portraits that span his entire lifetime, and sees a 12-year-old girl heaving different colored cans of paint at a wall canvas while crying and screaming.

Through all the partying, the hedonism, and the ersatz art shows, there exists a stream of discernible emptiness that runs not only through his own life, but through the lives of those he surrounds himself with. After calling out a woman's pretensions, he softens the blow by telling her, "We're all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little. Don't you agree?" His relationship with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the daughter of his good friend, the struggling playwright Romano (Carlo Verdone), however, brings a new focus to his life but it is short-lived.

It is only when he hears of the death of Eliza, a girl he loved as a teenager, that he receives a wake-up call. Reliving his missed opportunity in flashbacks, he learns through her diary that she loved him all along and begins to reexamine the direction of his life. After a less than enlightening meeting with an aging cardinal (Roberto Herlitzka) who wants to talk only about his favorite recipes, he throws a dinner party for a 104-year-old woman rumored to be destined for sainthood who has spent her life working with the poor in Africa and who subsists on 40 grams of plant roots. Seeing life in all of its simplicity and wonder, she movingly points him in the direction of the authentic "great beauty" that he seeks.

Servillo is magnificent as the blocked writer seeking renewal and his presence makes every scene come alive with spontaneity. Adding to this is the gorgeous soundtrack featuring The Beatitudes of Martynov, choral works by David Lang, John Taverner, and Arvo Part, and the contemporary Yolanda Be Cool's We No Speak Americano. Though The Great Beauty is not a film about Rome per se, the cinematography of Luca Bigazza memorably captures the striking sights and sounds of The Eternal City, the ancient monuments juxtaposed with the modern buildings. Literally bursting with the pulse of flawed humanity, The Great Beauty is a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the soul.

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