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Rome is often called the Eternal City. Generations of filmmakers from around the world have sought to capture its eternal beauty on screen. The latest attempt is a film called "The Great Beauty," opening in the U.S. this month. It's also Italy's official entry to the Oscars. As NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports, the movie is a double-edged portrait of both the beauty and the ugliness of modern Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: If there's one invitation you want this season, it's to journalist Jep Gambardella's 65th birthday blowout.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: The film "The Great Beauty" opens with a rooftop party to end all parties, a flashy crowd of the city's sexiest and richest grooving and grinding above Rome's skyline. And when the man of the hour makes his entrance, he's tailored to a fault, surrounded by beautiful women. Director Paolo Sorrentino says this opening is meant to hurl you right into the middle of the Roman high life.

PAOLO SORRENTINO: (Through Translator) I believe the beginning of a movie has to be a breakthrough, hit you, so to speak. I wanted to create a party scene that's unforgettable, knowing that party scenes are very complicated for directors.

QURESHI: As the party swirls around him, Jep steps out of the crowd, lights a cigarette and speaks directly into the camera...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GREAT BEAUTY")

TONI SERVILLO: (As Jep Gambardella) (Foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: ...reflecting on the one great novel he wrote 40 years ago, on the life of substance he's avoided ever since.

SORRENTINO: (Through Translator) I wanted to make it very clear from the start that the world we were going to enter is a world made up of people who seem to constantly distract themselves in order not to dedicate themselves seriously to real life.

QURESHI: As the party draws to a close, Sorrentino's camera pans out to reveal Rome just before dawn.

STEFANO ALBERTINI: It's probably one of the few times of the day when the city is almost a desert.

QURESHI: New York University professor Stefano Albertini says it's the image of an ancient city at peace in a way the film's characters are not.

ALBERTINI: Even in the middle of the night, there are always lots of people around. But then at dawn, you have that sort of metaphysical sensation that you are in an empty city that is in between something.

QURESHI: And as the main character walks home in that early light, he pauses to look at children beginning their day in a convent, the camera relishing the details of the marble columns and arches of ancient buildings. Peter Becker, who's releasing the film in the U.S., says Sorrentino's Rome demands that kind of introspection.

PETER BECKER: We're constantly reminded of the fantastic legacy of ancient Rome that surrounds you just by being in Rome. And so, how can you not measure yourself against that on a day-to-day basis in a certain way? It's just your environment.

QURESHI: In addition to stunning tableaus of buildings and light, Sorrentino uses classical music to convey the grandeur of Rome and to contrast it with the party jams that soundtrack the decadence.

SORRENTINO: (Through Translator) By being home to the Vatican, Rome is seen as the center of the sacred world. But it is also a city where the profane, sin and vulgarity are everyday occurrences. Through the music, I wanted to show the coexistence of these two souls of the city, the sacred and the profane.

QURESHI: This certainly isn't the first film to explore those uniquely Roman contradictions, the sins and the saints. Paolo Sorrentino follows in a line of post-war Italian filmmakers who sought to contrast the poverty and the glamour of Rome, to puncture the image of movie stars riding around fountains on Vespas.

Like Frederico Fellini, Sorrentino makes his characters almost caricatures. He inserts strange, surprising moments into the narrative. In one, a chorus of singers performs above a fountain as Japanese tourists try to capture the beauty on their cameras. Suddenly, one of them drops dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GREAT BEAUTY")

SORRENTINO: (Through Translator) That character as a tourist was seeking beauty and ends up being so overwhelmed, overtaken by that beauty. Beauty is a fleeting experience that does not last. All things that do not last hurt us, and so, metaphorically, beauty can kill us.

QURESHI: And that's a kind of commentary on the pursuit of pleasure that came to characterize Rome in recent years. Under former Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi, Rome became synonymous with corruption, excess, hedonism and ugliness.

But NYU professor Stefano Albertini says "The Great Beauty" isn't just an attack on the politicians. It's an indictment of the intellectuals and artists who retreated from their responsibility in the Berlusconi years.

ALBERTINI: The fact that Sorrentino decides that his character moves around the circles of leftist Rome and that in these leftist circles, the emptiness is as big as it is in the circles of the right, it's not only a problem of an ugly right represented by Berlusconi and his bunga bunga but it's also the problem of an empty left that somehow was not able to come up with a strong cultural personality to get out of the swamps in which Berlusconi took the country.

QURESHI: According to Albertini, "The Great Beauty" is also emerging from a long creative swamp in Italian cinema. So he says it's fitting that it's been chosen as Italy's entry for the Oscars.

ALBERTINI: It's a film that should mark the end of a creative crisis, not only of one person but of what seems to be the creative crisis of an entire country. And hopefully this could be the sign that the creative crisis is over, the film itself.

QURESHI: And like the film, the main character eventually finds a path out of his creative crisis, a path beyond the nightlife, a path that renews his faith in Rome's great beauty. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

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