“The Great Beauty,” Italy’s entry for the 2014 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, headlines the fare at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. Almost two-and-a-half hours long, this celebration of Rome and Italian-style vitality will dazzle the viewer’s eyes and ears.
A master of visual innovation, director Paolo Sorrentino tosses one breathtaking image after another at the viewer, but he does not employ a strong narrative thread to join them together. Like Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece “La Dolce Vita,” “The Great Beauty” surveys Roman society in all its joie-de-vivre decadence.
The ringmaster is Jep Gambartella, played by Toni Servillo, a celebrity journalist who celebrates his 65th birthday with an orgiastic party for his friends in his apartment overlooking the Colosseum. Jep’s claim to fame is “The Human Apparatus,” a much-touted novel he produced early in his career. Admiring fans and friends are still waiting for his next opus, but Jep has earned the title “King of the Socialites,” spending his time partying with friends, dallying with voluptuous women, and conducting interviews of celebrities assigned by his editor Dadina, a dwarf.
As its title suggests, the logic behind this film’s mélange of images belongs primarily to their arresting beauty. Within the first few minutes of the film, cannons explode along the Appian Way; a chorus of women sing composer David Lang’s “I Lie” a cappella against the breathtaking architectural backdrop of the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola; a Japanese tourist drops dead after snapping a souvenir shot of nearby Janiculum Hill; and a woman screams as a cinematic introduction to a frenzied party scene.
Like a tasting menu at a fancy restaurant, the film’s set pieces suggest the quintessential flavors of modern-day Rome. A few examples include a cardinal in line to become Pope who is more interested in sharing his recipes than exploring spiritual issues with Jep. Through his ministrations, count and countess offer themselves for hire to glam up the guest list at a party, and a doctor friend of Jep’s dispenses Botox treatments to a long line of patients.
Sacred and profane often keep company with each other, as viewers join an audience watching a semi-nude performance artist bash her head against a wall. A precocious little girl throws paint at a giant canvas as onlookers watch respectfully. Later, Jep has an audience with an ancient, toothless Mother Teresa stand-in who eats roots and shows up asleep on the floor in Jep’s apartment. Mr. Sorrentino inserts enough tidbits of plot to keep the viewer interested, and his narrator, ever dapper and blasé, never seems to run out of visual and aural magic tricks.
Also coming to the Film Center this weekend is “Cutie & the Boxer,” a documentary about Brooklyn-based artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife/assistant Noriko. The 80-year-old Shinohara established his reputation in the 60s with “boxing” paintings, where he applies paint by punching it onto canvases with boxing gloves. The film is a portrait of a stormy marriage between two artists. Returning for one screening each are the French film “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” about a teenaged girl’s sexual awakening; and “Dallas Buyers Club,” starring Matthew McConaughey as an AIDS sufferer. Next week’s entry in the Wednesday Film Classics series is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” with pre-screening holiday music by Rob Meyers and cider and cookies.
“Blue Is the Warmest Color,” Thursday, Dec. 12, 7:30 pm.
“Dallas Buyers Club,” Friday, Dec. 13, 4 pm.
“The Great Beauty,” Friday, Dec. 13, and Saturday, Dec. 14, 7:30 pm, and Sunday, Dec.15, 4 pm.
“Cutie & the Boxer,” Saturday, Dec. 14, 4 pm, and Sunday, Dec. 15, 7:30 pm.
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Wednesday, Dec. 18, 7:30 pm. All films play at M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members; $7 children 14 & under.