Believe it or not, this was my third time giving The Great Beauty a chance. The first two times I hated it. In fairness, both of my previous two attempts were not during the ideal circumstances. The first time was on Video on Demand before the home release. I didn’t realize the movie was as long as it was, so I had to cram it in during a busy time before the 24-hour rental period expired. It seemed beautifully shot, but overlong and plodding. The second time was when it was on Netflix instant, before the Criterion release and before I knew I’d be undertaking this ambitious project. That time my take was similar, but I watched it when I was tired and felt it was an inferior La Dolce Vita knockoff. My love for Fellini fueled my hate for Sorrentino.
I bought the Criterion because I buy all of the Criterion Blu-Rays, but it was one I planned to save for a rainy day. Maybe I would watch it last. I decided to try again after talking with Mikhail from the Wrong Reel podcast. I respect his opinions and often agree with him (although not always). He said he considered it to be one of his top 20 films of all time. Really? That was a surprising statement. He also would have La Dolce Vita in the same top 20. That was even more surprising, because I know some other Fellini fans who also despise The Great Beauty. Since I had revisited La Dolce Vita since my last attempt at this film, I figured it would at least be an interesting experiment in contrast, but I did not expect my mind to be changed.
My mind was changed.
The beginning of the film is absolutely exhilarating. I thought that on all three viewings, but it especially took hold of me this time. The film begins in daylight and the camera cuts quickly between gorgeous Roman buildings and vistas, intermingled with shots of random people. We see a Japanese tour group, and one of them dies, which introduces two themes that will come back later – tourism and death, and this moment will be subtly recalled at the end of the film. The camera is rarely static, and instead moves quickly, reminding me of Wenders’ Wings of Desire that gives the sequence a constantly flowing feeling.
Daylight abruptly ends and night begins as we are transported to a vibrant party, introducing a contrast that will continue throughout the film – the splendor of Rome during the day versus the wildness and debauchery at night. The camera moves just like it did in the daytime, with the same type of quick cuts. We see random images of participants, a motley crue of characters, some of whom will return later and some we will leave with the party. The party is a way to memorably introduce the main character.
Hello, Jep Gambardella! When we are introduced to Jep (Toni Servillo), he is clearly in his element. He dances to the hypnotic music, has a beaming smile, and soon will randomly French kiss one of the beautiful women. This is his 65th birthday party, and although he has the gray hair, he acts like someone half his age. He is a partier, living for the nightlife without a care in the world. He is affable, casual, fun loving, and we immediately understand why such a huge crowd flocks to his party. He’s the kind of guy people want to know, and even at 65, the kind of guy that people want to be.
I cannot write this without highlighting the similarities between Jep and Marcello from La Dolce Vita. They are both journalists. Marcello wrote for gossip magazines, whereas Jep interviews various figures from performance artists to religious figures. Jep is the more prestigious writer, both presently and in his past, having written a novel (or novella, as it is sometimes referred) forty years ago that sounds to have reached a level of popularity and literary credibility that Marcello was not within sniffing distance. They both are having an aging crisis, although Jep’s has more to do with being close to mortality, whereas Marcello is having a mid-life crisis. They both live for the night. In both films they go to parties and gallivant around Rome at night.
The similarities end there. Marcello is a bitter individual, whereas Jep upbeat, yet cynical about life and society and can be caustic, particularly when he verbally takes down a fellow, hubristic writer. They are both charismatic and well liked, but Marcello is downbeat and soft spoken. Jep has his somber moments, but even when he is questioning his place in life, he still carries himself with composure and is not nearly as aloof as Marcello. It is also worth noting that in both films, the writers encounter a young girl. The one that Marcello meets is fond of him, and does not see his bitterness, whereas we barely even see the one that Jep encounters. She is underground and Jep speaks to her through a sewer grate. She tells Jep that he is nobody.
There are a few other filmic elements and plot points that evoke memories of Fellini, and I was surprised to find in the supplements that the filmmakers were not consciously updating Fellini. I’m not saying they are being disingenuous. Perhaps these similarities were accidental or unconscious, or maybe they are just being coy about their inspiration. Either way, I think it is fair to make comparisons.
Despite these few similarities, many of which are either plot and character broad strokes, and others that are minor details, The Great Beauty deserves to be viewed on its own artistic merit. It makes many prescient statements and observations about modern life and society.
One reoccurring plot point is the art world. Along the way, we meet a few modern performance artists. One of them is a child who hurls paint cans at a canvas while having an emotional episode. One spectator complains at the exploitation, and is told that she makes millions, implying that commerce is the inspiration rather than passion. Another performance artist begins with knife throwing around a woman. At first the worry is for the woman’s well being, and then when she walks away, we see that the knives left an artistic imprint on the wall. This combination of a carnival act and the art world is important, and would be recalled later.
There is one scene where a man discusses with Jep how he will hide a giraffe. This act is not magic or art, but unequivocally a carnival act. He reveals that it is just a trick. Earlier in the film, a performance artist hurls herself at a stone column and smacks into it head first. This is just part of her performance, but is the most memorable as it appears that she has physically harmed herself, drew blood even, and all for art. It is later revealed that she had a buffer that prevented her from harm, so this was just also trick.
Jep sees these artistic demonstrations during his professional or social sphere. When the sun comes out, another form of art is revealed – the architectural beauty of Rome. Some of the film’s “great beauty” is revealed either during sunset when Jep is beginning his nightly adventure, or when the sun has come up after his night has ended. What he sees on his solo journeys is real beauty, real art, and not artifice.
A moment that is striking both for Jep and the viewer is when he encounters another piece of modern art, but he stumbles onto it by accident during one of his daylight strolls. This piece of art is simple, just a number of small snapshots of the same person on different days. It does not sound impressive by description, but the large number of these pictures as a whole reaches a magnitude that makes it a larger, and more distinct artistic statement. This is life and it is beautiful. You could say that the art itself is a trick because it is comprised of numerous little photos, easy to produce individually, but the end result is something special. The difference is that it has no commercial motive and someone like Jep can wander by it without paying anything.
The film touches on a number of other subjects and themes that I could write thousands more words about, such as the nature of death, love, tourism, classism, resistance to aging, religion, and plenty more. On this third viewing, I saw a dense and complicated film that is about various forms of beauty. “The Great Beauty,” however, is just a trick.
Film Rating: 8/10
Paolo Sorrentino: 2013 discussion with film scholar Antonio Monda.
Monda talks about meeting Sorrentino when accepted One Man Up for the Tribeca film fest’s first year. Scorsese asks Monda to call him because he was Italian, and it happened to be on April Fools Day so Sorrentino thought it was a joke.
Jep was intentionally supposed to be a likeable and casual figure, who had a cynical outlook on life and the world. They had seen people like that in Italy (particularly Naples) and it was not a tough character to envision. The “medium long” hair was a negotiation. Sorrentino wanted it longer.
They talk about the parallels with La Dolce Vita, and Monda wonders whether the broad stroke similarities were conscious. Sorrentino says they were not conscious. He says the only one that was intentional was filming the Via Veneto today. He says that the other references are unintentional, but perhaps subconscious because of his affection for Fellini.
The film is 137 minutes, which is long, but the first cut was longer. He misses those cut scenes and liked the first cut of the film, which was 190 minutes. He was not made to cut the film, but he did it himself. He thought that a long film would be exhausting, and it would perpetuate the theme (my words) that life is exhausting.
Toni Servillo: 2013 Criterion Collection interview.
This was his fourth film with Sorrentino, and he acknowledges that he owes a debt to the man for making his career. They share many ideas and observations, which made their way into the lead character. Paolo even designed the wardrobe, which was based on a Neapolitan tailor. Paolo wanted his Neapolitan flair to be very evident and clear, and not something he tried to conceal.
One thing I loved about this interview was not the words spoken, but the bookshelf behind him. There were books on Selznick & Hitchcock, Zanuck, and African Film Music. Servillo is not only a participant in film, but also a connoisseur and admirer.
Umberto Contarello: 2013 Criterion Collection interview.
Contarello is the screenwriter that worked with Paolo, and like Monda, met him at a festival. Some of his comments are redundant from the Sorrentino interview because he talks about them working together on a film that did not end up getting made. They developed a rapport during this collaboration.
When he heard about the scope of the project, which was Sorrentino’s accumulated thoughts about Rome, he said thought the project was ambitious, but Contarello also had thoughts on Rome that he could add. So they went to it. They did not intend to write a complex film that was a critique of modern society, so they intentionally added dimensions to Jep from things they liked about writers. “He seems fresh off the boat from Napoli” because of the way he moves around the city, but they portrayed him as if he lived in Rome for years.
They approached Fellini as an archetype on an unconscious level, basically repeating Sorrentino’s remarks. He compares this to The Odyssey, and that basically every film about a journey is inspired by Homer to a certain degree. A film about Rome cannot help but draw from La Dolce Vita
Maestro Cinema – Jep visits an aging film director in this short scene. The character has made a lot of films that said little of importance, and wants to make a film that says something. The director is the opposite of Jep.
Montage – This is a two-minute collection of deleted scenes. I’m actually glad they did not include the entire long cut, even if the scenes were good (and they do look good), but that would have been too much. Sorrentino was right to cut this film down. That said, one day I would like to see the longer film.
Criterion Rating: 8/10
Over the last couple months, there have been an inordinate number of art films with graphic sex scenes. Most recently was Godard’s Every Man for Himself, and not long before that was Don’t Look Now with the infamous “love” scene. The crème de la crème were Salò and In the Realm of the Senses. I haven’t intentionally looked for explicit films. That’s just the way it has worked out recently. Fellini Satyricon is more in the category of the latter two, yet does not quite reach the same depths of perversion. It is a depiction of pre-Christian Roman times and does not hold back showing the debauchery and depravity, which results in a lot of sexual activity.
I first saw Satyricon ages ago. I honestly cannot remember whether I saw it on video or cable, although I’m pretty sure it was one of the two. I watched it expecting humorous scandal, and ended up wondering what in the world I was watching. I may not have even finished it. Since that viewing, I have obviously studied film, and maybe not so obviously studies history, including a lot of ancient history. I never read Petronius’ Satyricon, which the Fellini version was “freely adapted,” from, as they point out in the opening credits. I did read a few of the peripheral sources from that time, including some Tacitus. Today, compared with my younger days, I have a firmer grip on Roman history and culture. In these two respects, this viewing was far more informed.
I usually do not get into transfers when writing about these films. Part of that is because Criterion has the reputation of putting out the best transfers available. At times there will be controversy that needs to be addressed, like with Lola, but rarely do I feel it is important to point how good a transfer is. That changes with Fellini Satyricon because this 4k restoration and Blu-Ray display might as well be another character. It is hard to imagine this movie looking any better. Every second is a visual spectacle. Even if some scenes are difficult to watch or incomprehensible, they look amazing.
On the other hand, sometimes the clarity of the transfer reveals the façade. Examples of this are when they are on a large set that is intended to masquerade as the outdoors, with a matte painting in the background. The above screenshot of the Roman Baths is an example of how this type of scene looks glorious with the format, as the upper half is a painting. On their way to the Baths, the structure of the set is more visible and it looks artificial. That is not really a gripe because it probably looked more realistic on other formats, not to mention it came out in 1969 and looked far better than most anything else from the time period. I enjoy being able to see these “flaws” in the production, even if it reveals more behind the curtain.
To say that Fellini Satyricon is ostentatious and brazen would be an understatement. Every shot has a mind-bogglingly large set, with costumes so decorous that they look partly authentic and also like a freak show. We can tell that Fellini is in love with these little worlds he has created as much as we are, as he has extended tracking shots that reveal the entire set with carefully choreographed acting. The make-up and costumes are so brilliantly exorbitant that it is a festival of riches and completely immersive. It is a blast to be hypnotized by the visual marvels. Trimalchio’s Dinner is the most notable of these, even if the sets are intentionally less decorative than the brothels or art museum. They are the best portrayal of the hedonism and excess that these wealthy Romans indulge upon. At times they are disgusting, while at others they are wild and upbeat, such as the many energetic dancing sequences. They are always entertaining.
After viewing the spectacle, the plot seems less important, but it is worth touching on. Encolpio (Martin Potter) is the central figure and we see most everything from his point of view. He is involved with Ascilto (Hiram Keller), Gitone (Max Born) and Eumolpo (Salvo Randone). Their escapades begin at the heart of Roman culture in the city of Rome. They are later taken prisoner via boat to the outer provinces where Encolpio has to overcome a number of challenges, including fights with mercenaries, Minotaurs, and a merchant named Lichas with a lazy eye (Alain Cuny). While there is a beginning and ending, and the characters are on a journey of sorts, this is more of a slice of Roman life rather than a narrative with a central plot. In other words, you cannot compare this with the three-act Hollywood formula. It breaks virtually all the rules.
There is abundance of lascivious content. The three younger male characters have androgynous looks, and there are hints of homosexual activity even if they are not shown on screen until Encolpio meets Lichas, and that shows just a kiss. We are given the impression that a great deal of homosexual activity takes place behind the scenes. There is plenty of female nudity and heterosexual scenes, beginning with the brothel, and culminating in Encolpio’s sexual rendezvous with a tied-up nymphomaniac. I’ve already compared it to some later movies where graphic intercourse was shown, but it holds back from becoming anything resembling pornography.
Fellini took a great deal of license with adapting Petronius’ work, filling up much of the film with his own research and, frankly, his wild imagination. Despite his embellishments, it still stands up as being much closer to authentic compared to other Roman depictions. This is not the Rome from your ordinary Cecil B. DeMille epic or even an HBO miniseries. This was the underbelly of Rome from during Nero’s reign, which Petronius was a witness to, and Fellini translated for a modern audience. It is carnivalesque mostly because this 2000 year-old culture is so foreign and distant to the one in which we live in. The reality is there was quite a bit of debauchery in pre-Christian Rome. Fellini Satyricon is not going to stand up as a historical document, but it is a better representation than a casual viewer (including the younger me) might realize. It portrays animal sacrifices, the brutality and abuse of power, pagan worship, and wild, erotic celebration.
I cannot say enough about how visually splendid this film is. This post has a lot more screen shots than most, and I could have included even more. Every frame has something interesting to the eye, whether it is the flamboyant and eccentric character, the fantastic make-up, costumes, set designs, gorgeous landscapes and last but not least, the photography. The use of locations and color are not only unparalleled for the time, but they hold their own against some of the more artistic projects created today with modern technology. I will not spoil the beautiful final shot because it has to be seen, but it punctuates the film both visually and thematically. It is up there with the best shots in Fellini’s career.
My expectations for Fellini Satyricon could not have been lower. In fact, I wondered why it was getting the Criterion treatment at all. Instead, I fell in love with Fellini all over again. He was a genius and versatile filmmaker, and this is yet another dimension of his fine career.
Film Rating: 8.5/10
Commentary: This is a dramatic reading of Eileen Lanouette Hughe’s 1971 memoir On the Set of “Fellini Satyricon”: A Behind-the-Scenes Diary. This is a new type of commentary for me, and it is tough to keep up with while re-watching the movie. It usually does not correspond to what is on the screen, although it is usually relatively close. It also gives a wealth of information about every aspect of the production, so much that it’s impossible digest it all. I am listing a few tidbits that I found interesting.
- It came to be known as Fellinicon and was the most expensive of his films and the first with foreign financing.
- All 3 of the leads were young, unknown actors. Two were British and one was American. They represented hippie culture, which is a good fit for the Petronius’ style.
- There was a rival Satyricon in the works with a much lower budget. That is why this was named Fellini Satyricon. It was a way to distinguish between the two.
- Many of the sets and props had to be made quickly with short notice. A Venus statue was made overnight. Parts of the brothel set were built in a couple hours and shot in a way that makes them look larger. There are many other examples of this throughout the commentary.
- The Trimalchio dinner scene took three weeks to shoot. It was intended to show the residence as not being ornamented aside from the food, because Trimalchio was a poor landowner and former slave who worshipped food.
- The actor that played Trimalchio ran a restaurant that Fellini used to frequent until he started getting too fat. The actor was reluctant to appear in film and leave his restaurant alone.
- Fellini intended to capture the essence of a pre-Christian world, which he likened to capturing Martians. That is why this pagan world seems so foreign to us.
- The ship is designed with modern methods and is a bridge between the ancient and modern world. This was intentional.
- Petronius had Encolpio marrying a young girl, but Italian censors would not allow a marriage with a child. Instead he marries Lichas (Cuny), a male, but acceptable to censors.
- The suicide scene may have been a nod to Petronius, because he killed himself rather than be killed by Nero.
- The set was constantly crowded with four people writing books, a documentarian, photographers, and guests. It also required an enormously large cast and crew.
Ciao, Federico! – Hour-long documentary by Gideon Bachmann. It starts with Fellini directing a love scene, calling out orders as the camera tracks around a threesome. One of the great parts of him shooting without sound is you hear him talk loudly to the actors while the camera is rolling. They show many shots from behind the scenes, which they alternate with interviews and slices of life with Fellini. We see him totally in element, including him on a cussing diatribe railing against someone who is working on the production. We also see him angry, happy, content, serene, and focused. It was a good documentary, both intrusive and revealing, but they had a lot of access.
Fellini: A series of interviews. Fellini despised giving interviews, but he had trouble saying no. That was noted in Bachmann’s documentary as well. We’re lucky he said yes so often because he had a lot to say and was highly quotable.
Gideon Bachmann (audio), 1969 – 10 minutes. Starts with a good quote: “The ideal film is the one you are making.” Obstacles are stimulating, because they cause you to create. He calls Saytricon his most difficult film because he had to create a world and portray situations that are considered forbidden. It was a stressful film for him to make.
French Television, 1969 – This was a short interview of just over a minute. He talks about the morality, or lack thereof in Satyricon, and instead showed decadence and vitality.
Gene Shalit, 1975 – This was another short interview. It begins with a title card that reads “Perfection.” Shalit repeats a previous Fellini quote “A good picture has defects.” They have to be complete, vital, and cannot reach perfection. He makes fun of Shalit’s appearance because it is imperfect and outlandish, yet he likes him for those flaws. The same is truth with film.
Giuseppe Rotunno, Cinematographer: 2011 interview for the Criterion Collection where he discusses the challenges in filming this iconic film. They worked on a number of films together and became like school buddies. Fellini allowed a great deal of freedom, yet was precise as far as what he wanted. Rotunno set up lights for 360-degree views because Fellini also liked to be free and wanted to shoot from all angles. Fellini’s common question when discussing a shot: “But will it look real?”
Fellini and Petronius: New 2014 Criterion documentary with classicists Joanna Paul and Luca Canali. Tacitus describes Petronius as someone who played in the leisurely, seedy side of Roman culture. He was known as a scandalous figure. We are missing most of the books of the Satyricon today, with only having bits of three of them. Fellini makes the film fragmented to honor what we have of the original text. The book is very realistic, and the film contains elements of that realism. Trimalchio’s dinner is the only extended portion of the Petronius text that survives, yet Fellini exaggerates it. A lot of the content and characters come from Petronius, while others come from elsewhere, partly Fellini’s imagination and also other sources. Fellini does not reveal sources except for Horace and Ovid, because he was not trying to be academic, but he clearly did his research to prepare for the film.
Mary Ellen Mark: She was 28 when she was assigned the task of photographing production for Look magazine. This is a 2014 interview with her. She shot the sequences he did in the Roman Baths, which was a smaller set and then grew larger. She had total access, partly because people weren’t paranoid about leaks like they are now. She loved photographing Fellini. He was larger than life and seemed to enjoy being photographed. She called him a showman. He was so busy making the film that he was oblivious to being shot, but still allowed himself to be seen.
Felliniana: These are items from Don Young’s memorabilia collection. It is a series posters, books, programs, and so forth. It is interesting to see such various depictions of this highly visual film from different cultures.
This was quite a release. While the film cannot be considered a masterpiece, the amount of supporting materials that were created and used on this Criterion disc are staggering. With a heavy and detailed commentary, a terrific behind the scenes documentary, and several other odds and ends, this is one of the most complete releases I’ve seen in a long time.
Criterion Rating: 10/10
My first viewing of L’Avventura was eons ago. It was my first Antonioni, and possibly my first Italian classic film. It is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made, a major turning point in Italian art-cinema, and by extension, world cinema. I remember that my first impression was not altogether rosy. It wasn’t that I disliked the movie, just that I did not understand why it belonged on such a pedestal. In the years since, I’ve revisited on several occasions and it has had a different affect on me. Many foreign art films tend to be more meaningful on multiple viewings, especially those that are selected as part of the Criterion Collection, but L’Avventura is even more impactful because of how it deconstructs the classic narrative plot structure.
I doubt that anyone reading this review has not seen the movie, so please be warned that I am going to spoil major plot points including the ending. It would be impossible to discuss this film openly without talking about the mystery of Anna, so please be warned not to continue reading if you would like to avoid spoilers.
Anna shows early on that she is an apathetic lover. She is not enamored with her lover, Sandro, yet reluctantly and impulsively makes love to him when they first meet. They go away on vacation, and her body language and actions are that of discomfort. When their group reaches a remote island off the coast of Sicily, she goes missing. We do not know whether she deliberately leaves, kills herself, hides, or what happens to her (although there are a couple of hints that are revealed on multiple viewings). This is unusual because her going missing and the initial search on the island occupies an entire third of the film. For the time, it was revolutionary for the narrative to leave the focal plot point so quickly and never revisit it.
That is why it is essential repeat viewing, because you have to understand that Anna is never found to get a proper reading of the film. That is why I was underwhelmed on that first viewing because I kept waiting for them to resolve the Anna situation, and it felt unsatisfying when they didn’t.
Like most of Antonioni’s best work, L’Avventura is a quiet, visual and challenging film. He makes the most of his landscapes, long shots, and juxtapositions of natural scenery versus humanity and technology. The images are startling in their beauty, and that includes the actors, most notably Monica Vitti, whose expressions he uses to tell the story as much as the dialog. The location shots are fantastic, from the abandoned village near Nota to the final shot with Mount Aetna in the background. Antonioni has been described as a painter, and just about every shot can be paused and enjoyed for its visual splendor. That is even more apparent with this 4k Criterion restoration. Antonioni likes to let the image linger and wash over the viewer, which is all the more pleasing with this home video release as it likely was on 35mm back in the 1960s.
Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) may be earnestly seeking out and following clues to find Anna’s whereabouts, but as time goes on, they seem less interested in discovering the missing friend and lover. It becomes more about them and their growing relationship. Towards the end, Claudia reveals that she no longer really wants to find Anna, that her old friend’s return would ruin how the situation has evolved. Compared with the resolute Anna, Claudia is needy and confused. She practically begs Sandro to confess his love for her, which he does non-committedly.
Sandro is a flawed womanizer who is not ready to settle down. If Anna had not gone missing, the relationship would have likely been over in the same time it took Claudia and Sandro to develop theirs. He is lost when it comes to love and relationships, uncomfortable, and always has his eyes out for something more promising. That is evident not just by the fact that he is later caught cheating, but that he pursues Claudia during the search for his missing lover in the first place. He is the more forceful in developing this relationship while Claudia is more reluctant, at least at first. When she commits, he strays and eventually breaks her trust.
Morality is at the heart of the film. Most of the characters are immoral and lust crazed. This includes Claudia and Sandro, but also the supporting characters. Guilia and Corrado are terrific examples of this. They exchange barbs during the island vacation, even after Anna goes missing, showing that their marriage is fractured. Guilia is tempted by a youngster and succumbs to his advances, obstinately telling Claudia to leave and tell Corrado that he can find her there. It is as if she is wishing to be found and have their marriage ended. These two characters represent the future of relationships, painting a bleak picture, and helping Claudia reach a level of understanding. If things worked out between Claudia and Sandro, this could be their future.
This movie is easily compared to La Dolce Vita. Fellini’s film was also a monumental and influential piece of art-house Italian cinema. In addition to being released in the same year it shares other similarities with L’Avventura. Fellini strives to contrast the modern and the old world, and uses the framework laid down by Italian Neorealism as his canvas, only he approaches his subject with a distinctively different style than Antonioni. His lead male is also a flawed and immoral person, only his film is from the male’s perspective whereas Antonioni’s is clearly through the eyes of Claudia. Both men at the end come to terms with their shortcomings albeit to different degrees. Fellini’s Marcello is all too aware of how miserable he has come, and that is why he acts out at a party. Antonioni’s final scene of L’Avventura involves a party, but the crime is quiet infidelity rather than creating a scene. It is not until he sees Claudia’s reaction and her drastic change in character that he comes to terms with his failings. When he is sitting on that park bench, sobbing in shame, Claudia touches his head in a show of part pity and part disdain. She has grown up, seen the world, and most likely has become jaded like her forgotten friend, Anna.
Film Rating: 9.5/10
Commentary with Gene Youngblood – This was recorded in 1989 and I had already heard it on a prior listening. Rather than listen to the entire thing, I listened during key moments, including the first third of the film, the Noti sequence, and of course the ending.
Antonioni uses his characters to form an ‘escapist sensuality’ which explains why Anna makes love to Sandro at the beginning, why Guilia accepts the advances of her young admirer, and why Sandro takes up with the young lady near the end (who was likely a prostitute).
When Claudia and Anna change clothes in the yacht, they change the place of each other. Soon, Anna will disappear and Claudia will begin the process of searching for her, taking up with Sandro and becoming Anna.
Not every scene advances the plot, which is why people initially had trouble with the film, while others appreciate this. In the scenes where nothing seems to happen, like when they are taking refuge from bad weather on the island, it contextualizes their situations.
Youngblood talks about the evolution of neorealism. Rossellini was an early pioneer of the genre, but he pushed it more towards being image-oriented in his trilogy with Ingrid Bergman. A good example is with his Journey to Italy, and you can see in that film where the transition from filmmakers like Visconti, De Sica and Rossellini transformed towards Fellini and Antonioni.
Antonioni portrays strong female characters unlike all Italian filmmakers (although I would disagree because of Rossellini’s Bergman trilogy), but still are men’s films. He concentrated on the female component, especially L’Eclisse and Red Desert, but they tend to realize they are living in a man’s world, which in essence, they were. In L’Avventura, the real adventure is Claudia’s journey towards self-knowledge.
Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials – 1966 documentary was the first to get Antonioni’s approval. He is a reserved individual and it is difficult to capture filmmaking by following the process, which is rife with problems and errors.
Grew up in Ferrara, had a bourgeois upbringing, and started his career working at writing and directing plays. He switched to documentary films and eventually features.
Lots of people talk about his early work, including Fellini who collaborated with him on The White Sheik, and had very good things to say.
L’Avventura took 7 months and bankrupted a production company (5 months filming). There were major production problems, including having the cast and crew stuck on an island for a view days. Vitti talks about her experience at Cannes. It was her first film festival, which was a different universe for her. The Cannes audience laughed at the film, hated it, and she felt terrible. By the next day, prominent people came out and stated it was the best film they’d seen at a festival.
Jack Nicholson – essays – Nicholson narrates essays from Antonioni.
1. L’Avventura: A Moral Adventure: People who try to discover his motivation spoil the film for themselves. He does not feel that director’s can or should explain film, and sometimes film cannot be understood. Despite his reservations for sharing motivations about L’Avventura, he agrees because he is sufficiently removed from the project.
Morality is the key, which has changed in human history history. He explores how we go astray and away from our outdated moral conventions, and he is merely portraying our weaknesses.
2. Reflections on the Film Actor: Intelligent actors that try to understand their role can become an obstruction. They should arrive in a state of virginity. Rather than try to guide thing, they should exploit their innate intelligence to employ what the director has instructed. When that happens, the actor has the quality of a director.
3. Working with Antonioni: Jack recounts his experiences working with the master, and agrees with Michelangelo to some degree, but it is impossible to not be thinking during his films. Jack remembers Antonioni saying contradictory things than what he writes in essays. There was very little conflict on the set of The Passenger, and Antonioni even cooked for them in the evenings. Jack tells an interesting anecdote about how the cast and crew returned from lunch and accidentally forgot the director, leaving him stranded, Antonioni pulled him aside and said “Jack, I have to pretend I am furious.”
Olivier Assayas – a 2004 analysis of the film. He breaks it down in three parts.
1. The Empty Center – Can consider it a documentary on the loss of meaning. Anna diving off the boat is A pivotal moment, but not THE pivotal moment. It breaks from the conventional plot because there is nothing for us to hold onto. Anna, and by extension modernity, is the “empty center.” The narrative after the first act shifts from Anna to other characters who pretend to care about looking for her. Do we care?
2. Point Zero – Claudia ends up replacing Anna. The path that Claudia and Sandro follows is unbelievable because they end up in the middle of nowhere. Are they really looking for Anna? The church in Noto is empty and unused and can be equated with the loss of faith.
3. The Resolution – Portrays the solitude of a brand new couple. Meaning disappears. Once they are together, they begin to drift apart towards solitude. After Sandro is caught cheating and Claudia’s flight, there is an acceptance of each other.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10
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