LA DOLCE VITA, FEDERICO FELLINI, 1960
While ultimately a distinctively Fellini arthouse project, La Dolce Vita is also an ambitious, sprawling epic. There’s a lot of story to tell, and it does so through a tightly structured sequence of loosely connected scenes, taking place mostly during the night or at dawn after the night’s events are over. There is not so much a plot as a sequence of episodes that say a little something about the hidden side of Rome, and a lot about the lead character of Marcello, even if he happens to be often be a passive observer during many of these adventures.
At the core is a statement on the media, and given that it’s about celebrity and media, it was ahead of its time. In fact, the term ‘paparazzi’ originated with the film because the photographer that works with Marcello is named Paparazzo. When the American/Swedish actress of Sylvia exits her airplane, a mob of photographers await, and she milks the attention by posing and even making a second, more photogenic exit from the plane. It is a negotiation between the two worlds, and she does a little dance with them, specifically with Marcello into the evening. He is a reporter and is part of the machine, yet he does not quite lower himself to the vulture-like behavior of the photographers.
Marcello, played by Marcello Mastrioanni, is not the most scrupulous individual. He is engaged to a woman that he tolerates, yet does not seem to adore. He is ill at ease basically everywhere he goes, and is always on the pursuit for something better. Whether this is a better looking or more intriguing girl, or a more fun time, he is never pleased with his situation. He seldom acts out, but instead shows his dissatisfaction through his nervous energy. Even when he encounters his father in a later scene, having not seen him in ages, he is not pleased with the way the night unfolds and tries to get away. The only time he raises his voice is when his fiancé finally calls him out. Even then he runs away, only to come back later and reconcile.
Many of the most notable scenes are when Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) is on the screen, whether running up the stairs, dancing to rock and roll music, or walking in the fountains. To Marcello and the audience, she is magical, but she is fleeting. She is not his or ours. She is the unobtainable, and that reminds Marcello that his world of the media can interact but not intersect with the celebrities that he engages. There’s a later scene where he enjoys the company of Nico (of Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol fame) as part of a group that tours an abandoned castle. Like Marcello, she is just a bystander, a participant. It is during this scene that the rich heiress friend and part-time lover Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) finally professes love to him and suggests marriage, but even that is a mirage. The moment the words escape her lips, she is intertwined with someone else’s embrace and hides from Marcello. He never does find her again.
The title means ‘the sweet life,’ but for Marcello, life is not so sweet. He finally stops being merely a passive participant at these late night gatherings near the end, and decides to become active in the party by humiliating a drunk girl and covering her in feathers. It is a sadistic side of him that, aside from the tift with his fiancé, doesn’t materialize elsewhere in the film. It is here that he physically and violently rejects this world, yet he is stuck with it. He cannot leave.
His encounter with a young and pretty teenager is what accentuates his misery and hopelessness. Her beauty affects him, but she is a child and not something to pursue. The presence of this childish innocence divides the film in half, and then punctuates it by returning at the end during what is, in my opinion, the best ending in Fellini’s career. The girl doesn’t belong to the world of galas and gatherings. The child’s innocent life is not obtainable, but in a different way that the life of Sylvia and the celebrity are unobtainable. The girl tries to talk to Marcello, but he cannot hear her over the noise of the ocean. After muttering and gesturing and getting nowhere, he leaves her with a slight movement of his hand, not quite a wave, and returns to the world to which he belongs and hates. It is a powerful, unsatisfactory, yet beautiful and moving end to a film.
Film Rating: 9/10
The Eye & the Beholder. This is a short featurette about the perspective of the film, beginning with where the girl gazes into the camera. That ending is compared with Godard and Truffault. The narrator also draws attention to a nod from Steiner to the camera that takes place so quickly that you could almost miss it. He then walks into another room and the perspective changes. It is a daring way of acknowledging the narrator, and distancing it from the point of view of Marcello. We are seeing the film partially through the lead characters eyes, but also through our own.
1965 Interview with Fellini. He Does not like to evaluate, analyze or rank his films, but then he does name La Strada and 8 ½ based on where he was in his life. More importantly he talks about why he shouldn’t comment about the meaning of his films The work should speak for itself. His voice clouds the work and interpretation. My favorite part of the interview was when he discusses how film is hypnotic, and you can control heartbeats and how people breath. In that way, film is a certain type of magic.
Lina Wertmuller Interview. Also a Director that would eventually have a successful career, she worked as an Assistance Director with Fellini on La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. She talks about Fellini and what made him tick. Some of her comments were humorous. One out there comment was that he likes asses. Yes, asses, and I don’t mean donkeys. One time he stopped a taxi and got out so that he could an ass. She bought a tiny bikini and that set Fellini off.
Scholar David Forgacs. This is a short, critical look at the film. He talks about how this was a transitional time in Italian history, and how the film juxtaposes the new, vibrant and economic Rome with the ancient history. He uses the opening shot as an example, with the helicopter carrying a statue of Christ over the ancient aqueducts. He talks about the Ekberg performance, and how she had already been a celebrity in Rome while working there, and had been photographed in the fountain. Fellini reconstructed what was a media event.
Antonello Sarno, Italian film journalist. Sarno talks at length about the production details. He talks about how Dino de Laurentis backed out and how Fellini had trouble finding financing. Aside from that, he discusses anecdotal details about the production, such as how the fashions were designed. One interesting story was that there were 1,000 bystanders at the fountain scene. He also talks about the film’s legacy, and how through its popularity, it became a brand, put Italy on the map.
Marcello Mastrioanni Interview. This is an audio interview that shows several still images throughout. Marcello talks about his engagement with the project, and how he had been a working actor in Italy that wanted to do something substantial. He wanted to work with Fellini because of how much he liked his films, especially I Vitelloni.
Criterion Rating: 8/0