By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As Oscar voting enters the homestretch, "The Great Beauty" gives an historical nod to the Italian films that have made the nation the most successful winner of best foreign-language film.
The ambitious and visually stunning drama directed by Paolo Sorrentino recalls the likes of Federico Fellini's half-century old "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2" in its portrayal of Rome's high society and an artist's existential dread.
"Fellini was undoubtedly a great influence on me," Sorrentino said through an interpreter from Rome before his departure for the March 2 Academy Awards in Los Angeles.
"I tried not to imitate him but it is likely that it is still deeply ingrained in my subconscious," he added. "There are similarities. However, today's world is different, and therefore my film is also very different."
Fellini himself won the foreign-language Oscar four times, the most of any director in that category.
"The Great Beauty" has been tipped by Oscar prognosticators as the frontrunner for the statuette as it vies against Denmark's "The Hunt," Belgium's "The Broken Circle Breakdown," Cambodia's "The Missing Picture" and the Palestinian Territories' "Omar."
If the film wins, like it did earlier at the Golden Globe awards and the BAFTAs, Britain's top film awards, it could give Italy its 14th foreign-language picture Oscar statuette.
"The Great Beauty" ("La grande bellezza") begins at the wild, rooftop 65th birthday party of Jep Gambardella - played by Toni Servillo - and follows the writer through self-reflections and his search for meaning among Rome's idle rich.
BEAUTY AND THE BANAL
The film takes Toni through the endless dinner parties, affairs, insecurities and hedonism of Rome's haut monde while the city's every door, ranging from a grand Botox lounge to a private Renaissance art gallery and access to a revered cardinal, opens at his beck and call.
Naples-born Sorrentino, 43, said Rome and the banalities of everyday life served as an inspiration for the film, which, although a drama, exuberantly pulses along with each shot accented by vivid color.
"There's that wasting of time that we all do and how we tend to focus on things that are useless and yes, somehow, these useless things are beautiful in and of themselves," the filmmaker said.
The ultimate playboy bachelor who dresses each day in tailored wool suits, Jep awakens to his existential conundrum at his birthday, reflecting on youth, unrequited love and a soulless Catholic Church.
Servillo, 54, who also starred in Sorrentino's 2008 film "Il Divo" about former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, like Marcello Mastroianni's Marcello character in "La Dolce Vita" shares the screen with Rome as his costar.
Jep's posh apartment, afforded on the success of his sole published novel that he wrote at age 25, sits across the street from the Coliseum with a dramatic view from his rooftop patio.
"Rome is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it can exemplify what Italy is like," said Sorrentino.
"The film is called 'The Great Beauty,' and I wanted to compare and contrast the beauty of the city itself with people who don't realize that this beauty is all around them."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Andrew Hay)