If you haven’t yet seen this year’s foreign language Oscar winner, “The Great Beauty,” all you possibly know about the film is that it has something to do with “La Dolce Vita.” Kind of. Maybe.
Is Paolo Sorrentino’s movie — a meditative and rapturously shot drama set amid the idle upper classes of today’s Rome — a remake of the 1960 Federico Fellini classic? Is it a sequel? A cinematic genuflection? Sunday starting at 4 p.m., you have a chance to find out. The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square is showing the two films in a one-shot double-bill: Fellini first, Sorrentino after. (Is it afternoon already? Put down the paper, or e-reader, and go. Five-plus hours will rarely be better spent.)
Having recently previewed the Brattle two-fer in the only way possible — at home, on DVD — I can say with assurance that the new film is hardly a remake of the older. Yet “La Dolce Vita” and “The Great Beauty” are twins, after a fashion: fraternal twins rather than identical, different sequencings of the same DNA. Both movies explore modern malaise, the emptiness of “the sweet life,” by whirling their cameras around a decadent Eternal City. And yet each film comes to a separate conclusion. If “La Dolce Vita” is about a youngish man losing his soul, “The Great Beauty” is about an oldish man, against steep odds, reclaiming his.
How intentional are these echoes? It may be moot. When the subject has come up in interviews, as it must, the 41-year-old Sorrentino (“Il Divo,” “This Must Be the Place”) deflects with praise. “It was not my intention to quote or to imitate Fellini,” he told The New York Times late last year. “ ‘La Dolce Vita’ is a film that tries to understand the meaning of life in a world that is losing this meaning. That is a sensation I can feel right now in Rome, the sense that life is futile, that you can’t find a real sense of purpose.” The director calls the comparisons “flattering,” but added, “I’m also embarrassed, because I think [Fellini] made masterpieces and I don’t.”
That may be fact or false modesty, depending on your response to “The Great Beauty.” In its initial release last year, the film polarized critics and audiences, with some swooning and others sneering. In his two-star review for the Globe, Peter Keough found the film tedious and wrote, “As for the differences between Fellini and Sorrentino as filmmakers, the less said the better.” I, on the other hand, put it on my year-end Top 10 list. (See: Movie critics can be as subjective as anyone else.) And the more times one watches “The Great Beauty,” the clearer one may sense an aching emotional core beneath the film’s bewildering visual and sonic beauty.
Both movies wrestle with dualities, primarily the noble history embodied by Rome’s ruins versus the heedless sybaritic pleasures of today. “La Dolce Vita” may have bottled both in one frame in the film’s iconic image of a blonde movie star (bounteous Anita Ekberg) frolicking in the 17th-century Trevi fountain. The lead character in “Vita,” a shallow newspaperman named Marcello, played by a grandly weary Marcello Mastroianni, stands there watching as though his gears are being stripped.
By contrast, the hero of “The Great Beauty” is older, superficially wiser, and more in charge. A writer who penned one hit novel in his 20s and has been coasting on the jet-set fumes of that success ever since, Jep (Toni Servillo) is first seen at his 65th birthday party, the ringmaster of the floating gala that is Rome’s high life. That party scene itself is a masterwork in miniature, each Fellini-esque face its own dramatic/satiric story line. Unlike Marcello’s frozen handsomeness, the mask of Jep is clownlike yet removed, poised forever between holy man and fool.
“La Dolce Vita” is a downward pilgrim’s progress, Marcello led less by his nose than by other parts of his anatomy. The journalist’s conquests are many, none more touching than the chicly despairing heiress played by Anouk Aimee and none scarier than the climactic collision with an imperious American artist (Audrey Macdonald). The meaningful high culture that Marcello admires but can’t quite reach, embodied by the intellectual family man Steiner (Alain Cuny), turns out to save no one. The hero, ultimately downgraded to a publicist, is stranded across an inlet from a young innocent (Valeria Ciangottini) whose words he can no longer hear.
In “The Great Beauty,” it’s as if the protagonist slowly started listening again — and seeing, and feeling. (The cinematography by Luca Bigazzi is almost painfully sensuous and the soundtrack — tellingly split between modern liturgical music and banal but catchy pop — is worth the cost of the two-disc import CD.) On its surface, the film is a semi-satiric meander through a wealthy wasteland: underground botox salons, ridiculous art happenings, penniless nobles for hire, schizophrenic heirs, doomed strippers. But there is a plot and it’s hidden beneath the recesses of Jep’s heart and mind as he reawakens in his search for the “great beauty” of the title.
Which is what, anyway? Rome itself? The girl that got away in Jep’s youth? Everything that lies beneath the surfaces Sorrentino captures so lusciously well? If “La Dolce Vita” is a tragedy about the ways we dull ourselves with time and disappointment and appetite, “The Great Beauty” says the process can be reversed if you see the trick of it all: the meaning beneath the “blah blah blah,” the transcendent meaninglessness beneath that.
Is one a “better” film? “La Dolce Vita” is generally considered an untouchable masterpiece, and a revisit tends to confirm that. Fellini’s sympathetic but unyielding judgment touches so many of the characters: Marcello’s sad, blustering father (Annibale Ninchi), the pesky photographer (Walter Santesso) whose name — Paparazzo — has entered the language, Marcello’s fiancée, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), with her tinny romantic dreams, all those rich fools dancing around the pit. The movie offers modern Rome as a metaphor for human existence and Mastroianni’s gorgeous, vaguely troubled face as a metaphor for Rome.
“The Great Beauty” inverts that journey. It’s not an indictment aimed outward at society but a healing that forces its way into one solitary man. If hope is less truthful to you than despair, then probably Sorrentino’s vision will seem thinner in comparison. Certainly it’s the “lesser” experience in that “The Great Beauty” is unthinkable without “La Dolce Vita” while “La Dolce Vita” does not need “The Great Beauty” to exist.
I wonder, though, if this is all beside the point. Both Fellini and Sorrentino find some of their most powerful moments at dawn, when the world comes back into view after a long night of pleasure. In “La Dolce Vita,” this is the cruelest of hours, the moment when Marcello’s illusions dissolve bleakly in the light. In “The Great Beauty,” it’s a time for reflection and seeing afresh — perhaps even an occasion for miracles, like a flock of flamingos roosting on a balcony overlooking the Coliseum, their feathers glowing absurdly pink in the sunrise.
Perhaps we need them both.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.