By JILL LAWLESS
CANNES, France - Paolo Sorrentino has a thing about food - appropriately enough, for the director of a sumptuous feast of a film, "The Great Beauty."
The Italian auteur's Cannes Film Festival entry is a journey through Rome in the company of observant but aimless writer Jep Gambardella (actor Toni Servillo). Sorrentino's camera takes viewers through the sacred, profane and teeming streets - to medieval churches and grand palazzi, modernist homes and debauched poolside parties. All are wearily watched by Jep, who is turning 65 and trying to recapture his passion for life.
Along the way the film provides sharp portraits of characters who have lost their way amid the endless distractions of urban living - including a Roman Catholic Cardinal too busy dispensing his favorite recipes to offer spiritual counsel. It's one of many signs in the film of a society that has come unmoored from its bearings.
"When I think about it, I find it's quite extravagant the way everyone talks about food," the director said during an interview in Cannes. "I think this obsession with food has reached people who should deal with the Holy Spirit.
"I fall into the trap myself," he admitted. "One of my favorite shows is `Masterchef.'"
"The Great Beauty" - the title can refer to the Eternal City, or to life itself - has been well received at Cannes, where Servillo is being mentioned as a candidate for the best-actor prize in Sunday's awards.
Some viewers, though, found it overwhelming: too rich in strange and beautiful imagery - a flock of flamingoes and a giraffe make memorable appearances - and too suffused with talk and ideas.
Sorrentino says that's partly the point - life and Rome are both overwhelming. One early scene shows a tourist photographing a sublime view of Rome, and keeling over dead.
"The perception of beauty is one of the strongest feelings you can have. You can even die from it," said Sorrentino, a weary-eyed man - most people are after a few days at the festival - who is given to succinct answers.
Or, the film suggests, you can simply be numbed into aimlessness by the distractions of urban life.
Sorrentino said the original idea for the movie came from the image of "a very long party."
"I wanted to reproduce the idea that sometimes you go to parties with extremely high expectations, and then you are longing to get away as quickly as you can," he said.
"Our country offers marvelous opportunities, but people don't seize them, because they're too busy partying and enjoying themselves. That's why we have so many missed opportunities.
"If I wanted to give a political interpretation of the movie, I'd say the theme was missed opportunities.
"But the film focuses on feelings, on human beings' feelings, which are undermined by the fatigue of living, of human existence. I think that is not just an Italian characteristic."
In contrast to his main character, a 65-year-old writer coasting on the success of his sole novel, 42-year-old Sorrentino is impressively prolific. One of 20 films in the running for Cannes' coveted Palme d'Or, "The Great Beauty" is Sorrentino's fifth movie to compete at the festival. He won the third-place Jury Prize in 2008 for "Il Divo" - a dramatization of the life of Italian politician Giulio Andreotti - and was last here in 2011 with his English-language comedy-drama "This Must Be the Place," which starred Sean Penn as a rock star.
"The Great Beauty" takes him back to Italy, and with its air of melancholy and regret, feels like the work of a much older director.
"I take that as a compliment," Sorrentino said. "I hope that when I get older I'll have the opportunity to make the movies I should have made when I was young.
"I'm trying not to waste my time. I'm trying to seize opportunities when I can, because I'm a lucky man - my job is connected to my amusement. Job and fun in my case coincide. I work a lot because I like it a lot."
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
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