THE GREAT BEAUTY directed by Paolo Sorrentino, written by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello, with Toni Servillo and Carlo Verdone. 142 minutes. Subtitled. A Mongrel release. Opens Friday (January 31). For venues and times, see Movies.
When I ask Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino at the end of our interview during TIFF 2013 what question he wished I'd asked him, he doesn't hesitate.
"The best question is no question at all."
Weird. Suddenly, he sounds like one of those surly artistes who only spit out monosyllabic answers. But I've just spent 30 minutes with him, and he's been engaging and thoughtful, speaking mostly through an interpreter on a vast range of subjects. (Now that I think of it, is there a single monosyllabic word in Italian?)
The topics vary precisely because The Great Beauty, his gorgeous pic about contemporary Roman society, takes on so much - corruption, religion, aging, art - as his main character, Jep, roams the streets and the clubs.
Just that short description gives you whiffs of Fellini's La Dolce Vita. It, too, has themes of alienation and decadence and an episodic style - stuff just keeps happening.
Go ahead, compare Sorrentino to the Italian icon.
"He's one of my favourites, a master in revealing life," says Sorrentino. "I am afraid, though, that the film will appear like an imitation, in which case it could fail."
I don't think so. It took the Golden Globe for best foreign film and has just copped an Oscar nom in the same category.
Among Sorrentino's many targets is Rome's arts community, seemingly less and less interested in authentic emotion. A bitingly satiric sequence features a performance artist banging her head against a tree while Roman ruins loom in the background; the visual arts have obviously gone downhill since ancient times.
"There are contemporary artists that I hate with all my heart," he says. "These are provocateurs that are without feeling. Where is the real emotion?"
He himself shows plenty of passion in his commentary about religion, both in the film and in person. A sequence in the film features an inspirational saint whose devotion leads her to climb hundreds of stairs in a local church.
"Religion in Italy has been changing since the new pope has come into the Vatican. My representation of religion, the saint and the [corrupt] cardinal, reflects what Pope Francisco is saying: the true beauty of the religion is in conflict with the old Church.
"And I included the botox sequence" - in which clients take a number and line up around the block for injections - "because beauty has become a new religion."
As in Il Divo and The Consequences Of Love, Sorrentino works with his muse Toni Servillo, who expertly conveys dissolute journalist Jep's world-weariness.
"As an actor, his most important quality is that he tries to do something new with every film. It's like I'm working with a new actor every time. More important than his acting qualities, we have a friendship. Even when the work is heavy, we both keep a sense of irony and humour."
The film's almost awkward title is not a phrase anyone would use in everyday language.
"That's true," he allows, "but it reflects the spirit of the movie. Everything can be beautiful - vulgarity, corruption, squalor, the people at parties who snort cocaine.
"Even in the emptiness, there is beauty."