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Megalopolis is a fightback against artistic safetyism

Megalopolis (2024). Credit: IMDb

May 19, 2024 - 8:00am

Megalopolis will no doubt be among the most polarising films of this year. Loosely inspired by the Ancient Roman Catilinarian conspiracy, it tells the story of an architect seeking to rebuild a metropolis, New Rome, according to a utopian plan while coming up against a corrupt mayor who wants to conserve the status quo.

More, pertinent, though, is the man behind the film. Francis Ford Coppola reportedly poured $120 million of his own money into this science-fiction epic, a passion project that was 40 years in the making. At the Cannes Film Festival this week, Megalopolis received the customary several-minute-long applause, but was also subject to significant booing. Critical reviews have been similarly divisive: the Guardian called it “a bloated, boring and bafflingly shallow film”, while IndieWire hailed it as a “transcendently sincere manifesto about the role of an artist at the end of an empire”.

Megalopolis can be fully judged by the masses when it has a wider release, yet the root of critics’ early disdain seems to be that it is too eccentric and too expensive. After all, it’s easier to call a mega-budget movie self-indulgent or ill-disciplined.

Yet if one should know anything about Coppola’s career, it is that he is a gambler. He took a chance on Marlon Brando when the actor’s stock was falling, and cast an unknown Al Pacino against the wishes of his Paramount bosses. The result was The Godfather. After a torturous, years-long production process, he produced no less a film than Apocalypse Now.

Megalopolis is another big roll of the dice. As with any gambler, the odds aren’t always in Coppola’s favour, and it’s entirely possible that he’ll endure further heavy losses. Forty years ago, One From the Heart managed to be both a commercial catastrophe and a critical punching bag, yet its artistic standing has risen since.

Coppola came of age professionally during the “New Hollywood” wave of the Seventies, alongside other visionary directors such as Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah and Terrence Malick. Compared to previous filmmakers, they all had more creative control over productions, and therefore more licence to push the envelope in portraying sex and violence in contravention of the stuffy censorship of the Hays Code. Coppola reached his peak within this climate of freedom, producing arguably the greatest four-film run of anyone who’s ever done it: The Godfather I and II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now.

This era came crashing down with the onset of the Eighties. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate exemplified the excesses of auteurism with its runaway budget and elongated production. A commercial disaster, Heaven’s Gate prompted studios to shift away from directors’ passion projects and towards investing in high-concept blockbuster films where the studios had a much tighter grip on production. It’s no coincidence that Coppola’s career since then has never reached the same heights. Hollywood’s climate has become more corporate, less welcoming to ambitious filmmakers willing to take risks for the sake of their art.

And so, even if it ends up a financial flop, we should welcome outrĂ© films like Megalopolis, because they help progress cinema as an art form. In a space dominated by boardroom-decreed comic book flicks and incessant remakes, reboots and spin-offs, cinema desperately needs people like Coppola who are prepared to gamble on an original idea for the sake of an audience. More, it needs a structure which helps to facilitate such people, rather than taking the “safe” route so often followed in mainstream cinema to protect profit margins.

Coppola once said that he learnt from Elia Kazan about having a word to describe the essence of a film. With The Godfather the word, he said, is “succession”.  The Conversation is “privacy”. Apocalypse Now is “morality”. With Megalopolis, it is “sincerity”. There can be no doubt that Coppola is a sincere artist. And, in its present state, cinema could do with more sincere art.


Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.

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AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

I’m all in favour of helping progress cinema as an art form – but I am glad that there is no call for my money or taxes to be used for the ‘project’. That would lead to runaway budgets and elongated production.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The reason France’s egghead cinema is so lousy is it is almost entirely subsidized by the government. Even the French give them a wide berth.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

If by “sincerity” the writer means “reflective of our humanity” as any great film must be, then bring it on (to a screen near me).

Anyone else bored to death with VFX/SFX and shape-shifting androids? They had their moment, now they’re just a waste of cinematic time in the absence of a human story.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Agreed.
I, too, think that a film whose key descriptor is ‘sincerity’ is worth seeing even just for this reason alone.
Incidentally, while reading the article, I realised that I haven’t seen/heard this word for quite a while, which is really sad…

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago

Thank you to the author for this interesting and enlightening article.
As a more general comment, I am very happy that Unherd publishes articles on cinema.
Indeed, the crisis in cinema is obvious. Nonetheless, there are still interesting and original films that appear from time to time.
Reading good articles about them is also a pleasure in itself.

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
1 month ago

Looking forward to it.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
1 month ago

It does look to all intents and purposes that Coppola’s attempted to adapt “Atlas Shrugged”, for which he should be wholeheartedly applauded. However, despite admiring Aubrey Plaza in “Emily the Criminal”, I have little time for Mr Driver.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
1 month ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Maybe The Fountainhead?

Sylvia Volk
Sylvia Volk
1 month ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Yes, this does sound more like The Fountainhead.

Kathleen Burnett
Kathleen Burnett
1 month ago

Film making is in a mature phase where the low hanging fruit has been picked long ago. So how should film makers respond? Dress up the old stories in new clothes? More sex and violence? Go woke? Distract viewers attention by fast cut editing, different soundscapes?
Suggestions welcome.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
1 month ago

Artistic safetyism is an oxymoron. No guts, no glory.

Arthur G
Arthur G
1 month ago

Can we please stop using “fight back” as a noun. It’s a verb: “to fight Back”. The noun you’re looking for is “counter-attack”.

Dengie Dave
Dengie Dave
1 month ago

Speaking of sincerity, Sam Goldwyn is reputed to have said of Hollywood: “Once you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made.”