International Oscar Showdown 2014: 12 Years A Slave vs The Great Beauty

The 86th Academy Awards winners for Best Picture and Best International Feature Film were 12 Years A Slave and The Great Beauty

A song of Solomon

Based on a 19th century memoir, 12 Years A Slave depicts the kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northup, a black free man from New York. The original text — if you’re interested — is available for download on Project Gutenberg, and will give you an immediate insight into the narrator’s humility:

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave

Both-sides-ism

It’s interesting that the editor of the original memoir sought to declare the book’s independence from the slavery argument — “unbiased by any prepossessions or prejudices” — and assert that its sole intention is to accurately “give a faithful history” of Solomon’s experiences. But that was back in 1853, almost a decade before the slavery argument descended into civil war. It feels rather less of a contentious issue in the 21st century to say all slavers were bastards (even if that includes many of the revered founding fathers).

Grim viewing

The film is relentlessly bleak and cruel, as you might expect considering the subject, and for the most part is thoroughly devoid of hope. It’s a gruelling watch, not least for the piteous fate of Lupita Nyong’o’s character Patsey, who suffers rapes, beatings and humiliation, and who is abandoned at the end when Solomon is granted his freedom.

A white man’s tale

It was hard not to judge the corresponding Best Foreign-Language film through this lens of class and race, so contrasting were the fates of its affluent, white characters from the lives of black slaves.

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty
Jep Gambardella’s grin

All roads lead to moan

It’s difficult to connect with these characters — even Jep, played with abundant charisma by Toni Servillo — not because of their elevated class, but because of their endless moping from penthouse suites, or their pretentious interest in befuddling high-concept art installations, or their shallow betrayal of friends and lovers.

When in Rome

One reason the storytelling feels so muddled is the adoption of Rome as its most prominent actor. Rome is both an awe-inspiring wonder and a hollowing prison to its denizens, and the director ushers our gaze towards random moments featuring people with whom we have no connection — they are but Romans, doing Roman things. Indeed, the movie opens with a Japanese tourist photographing the cityscape when he is seemingly overcome with awe and collapses — it is an event to which we do not return. Rome, then, is the point: it is bitter-sweet, enchanting, a honey trap from which one cannot escape. And only after forty years in its embrace does Jep’s friend realise: “Rome has really disappointed me.”

Retrospective result

This result might have been very different if The Great Beauty had been pipped to the post by Danish nomination The Hunt — a masterful drama starring Mads Mikkelsen as a teaching assistant who is falsely accused of sexually abusing a child. The tension in that film simmers with each passing scene, and is a remarkable example of tight storytelling in a small setting that evokes maximum impact. You should watch it.

Writer of stories, movie reviews, and sundry other whims. Also a sub-editor, so you are welcome to shout at me about typos.

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