Italy cheers Oscar return amid funding angst

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Photo - Paolo Sorrentino, left, poses with the award for best foreign language film of the year for "The Great Beauty" with Toni Servillo at the Governors Ball after the Oscars on Sunday, March 2, 2014, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.  (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Paolo Sorrentino, left, poses with the award for best foreign language film of the year for "The Great Beauty" with Toni Servillo at the Governors Ball after the Oscars on Sunday, March 2, 2014, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
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ROME (AP) — Italy celebrated Monday after "The Great Beauty" ended the country's 15-year hiatus and won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, though culture buffs continued to fret over budget cuts to a national film industry that has won more foreign Oscars than any other.

From the president and premier on down, Italians hailed Paolo Sorrentino's homage to Federico Fellini and Rome's seductive decadence as a win for a country struggling through its own economic and even existential crisis.

"At this time we have to be thinking about other things, and we're doing so," Premier Matteo Renzi tweeted. "But everyone is part of this Italian moment of pride for Sorrentino and 'The Great Beauty.'"

The film focuses on the life of Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, who on the occasion of his 65th birthday reflects on how his talents have been paralyzed by Rome's beauty and his ambition to be at the center of the high life.

The film can be seen as a microcosm of Italy's current malaise and some call it a modern-day reinterpretation of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." President Giorgio Napolitano said it evoked the "great tradition of Italian film together with a new capacity for creative storytelling for today's reality."

But amid Europe's economic crisis, Italy's culture industry has been hard-hit by budget cuts, with the government outsourcing even the restoration of Rome's Colosseum to private sponsors.

In 2000, public funding accounted for 70 percent of film production expenditures in Italy; today it's only 12 percent, according to Anica, Italy's main film lobby. A new tax credit scheme is helping to encourage more filmmaking at home, but Anica has warned that the industry risks being put "on the margins" unless it is relaunched at a national level.

After his victory, Sorrentino said he wanted to meet with the new culture minister, Dario Franceschini, to discuss film industry policies that he said might force movie theaters to close down. "We have to prevent this," he said.

Italy's great directors — De Sica, Fellini, Tornatore — have won the country a record 14 Oscars, 10 of them for best foreign film. The last time was in 1999 with Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," which scooped three awards.

Selma Jean Dell'Olio, a film critic for Il Foglio daily who was among many critics in Italy who didn't like the film, said Sorrentino's Oscar wouldn't do anything in the long run.

"It'll make Italy happy for five minutes," Dell'Olio said. "Every time a halfway decent film or one that goes abroad comes around ... they talk about a renaissance. But one swallow doesn't make a spring."

Many Italians have resented the film as a ripoff of Fellini — there's a dwarf, a giraffe and Fellini-esque scenes of Romans behaving badly. But even critics seemed to appreciate that it nevertheless showed off the Eternal City in all its stunning beauty.

Sorrentino said the music brought out Rome's inherent contradictions.

"The music in the film is a very simple mix between sacred music and profane music because in my mind, Rome is a city that has this big characteristic," he said. "It's the center of the Vatican, the center of the Catholic world. At the same time, the profane world works under the Vatican."

Sorrentino thanked several luminaries as his inspiration, saying they played a key role in his adolescent formation: the Talking Heads, Fellini, Italian-American director Martin Scorsese and Diego Maradona, the Argentine soccer star who played for Sorrentino's hometown team of Napoli when he was a boy.

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Colleen Barry in Milan and Ryan Nakashima in Los Angeles contributed.

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Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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