La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life), as ironic a title as has ever been used in motion picture history, Federico Fellini’s 1960 film commentary on modern hedonism and anomy, and filmed in 1959 in Rome, may just be the best film in his canon, for it combines the Neo-Realism of earlier classics like La Strada and Nights Of Cabiria, while admixing some of the surreal touches of his later classics. Plus, it is the best written and most ambitious of his films. In many ways, its lead star, Marcello Mastroianni, would play a similar version of this film’s lead character, gossip journalist Marcello Rubini, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (The Night), which followed the travails of a marriage over a single night. While this film does not follow a marriage, it does follow Marcello’s personal travails over the course of a week full of nights and early mornings- although not necessarily in that order. Otherwise it may have been better titled La Settimana (The Week), or La Vuoto Vita (The Empty Life).
This film is often coupled with its immediate successor film, 8½, and usually compared to negatively by most critics. It’s the superior film, however, because, despite being even a bit longer, at just about five minutes short of three full hours, there is not any of the fat that could be trimmed from 8½. The later film is also a more personalized Fellini romp, and while some scenes may have biographical import to Fellini and film scholars, they do not work in service to the narrative within that film. La Dolce Vita, however, has no such fat, and, indeed, could have gone on a bit longer without feeling the least bit tedious, for Fellini employs the same picaresque narrative techniques he did in earlier films. In essence, instead of one long nearly three hour film the viewer is watching a series of seven or so twenty to thirty minute long short films with just one recurring character.
This also allows for a good reason to justify why Marcello’s character does not grow internally. He is the eternal troubadour, a modern emotionless Odysseus, flouncing about from one meaningless encounter to the next. That does not mean there are not moments of true depth and insight, and critics who have accused the film of being void of any deeper psychology are just plain wrong. Because someone is shallow does not mean that there is no reason beneath that façade, it just means there’s not much beneath the façade- and that can be explained if one really pays attention to the film. In the film’s commentary, critic Richard Schickel notes that film critic Alfred Bazin claimed that all of the characters in the film are simply behaviorist paradigms, without any internal motivations. Yet, we see far too many scenes that contradict this stance- one senses motivated by politics rather than art, and because one simply cannot delink one from the other. Behavior is caused by motivation, and scenes we see of Marcello with other minor characters- Maddalena, Emma, Sylvia, Paparazzo, his father, Steiner, Paola- clearly sketch in much of the man’s background before the film starts.
Of course, another critical error that is made in criticism of Fellini films is the assumption that he is pro-religion. It is true, he is not as overtly hostile to the subject as an Ingmar Bergman, but the idea that Bergman was a rigidly intellectual filmmaker and Fellini a bundle of emotions without intellectual governance is preposterous. Yes, the two filmic giants leaned in different directions, but Fellini wrote most of his films, and one does not create a masterpiece like La Dolce Vita without having quite a bit of intellect. La Dolce Vita was not only a prescient film in its unmasking of the essential deadness of a celebrity driven culture (as it was also responsible for naming the packs of gossip journalists and photographers paparazzi- after its noxious blond photographer character, Paparazzo- played by Walter Santesso) but light years ahead of the mostly brain dead fare Hollywood was purveying, and still does. Just compare how fresh and modern it still is to Oscar winning trash like Titanic or Crash. And a good deal of that modernity comes from his dead on glare at religious folly and the delusions it inflicts into its followers.
The film follows the traipsings of Marcello about the celebrity-ridden Via Veneto, and also amongst the equally soulless idle rich, dull suburbanites, and intellectually effete. It starts with a famed aerial shot of a plaster statue of Jesus being whisked by a helicopter carrying Marcello over Rome. It passes over the famed Coliseum ruins, construction sites, rapt poor children who follow it through the streets, and sunbathing women on a rooftop. In a mixture of the scared and profane, and despite the image hanging below the phallic helicopter like a scrotum, Marcello tries to flirt with the beautiful girls, and asks for their phone numbers. He cannot hear them, so on they proceed to St. Peter’s Square. What their mission with the statue was is never revealed. We then cut to a nightclub scene where Marcello is threatened by what may be a Mobster. He then goes driving with a wealthy woman- likely an heiress, named Maddalena (Anouk Aimee), who is his lover. They pick up a hooker, who allows them to use her flooded cellar apartment for a tryst. Thus, in the first few minutes, before any real character development has taken place, Fellini has mocked the idiocy and symbolism of organized religion, as well as the bleakness of modern life, where dismal apartment complexes rise out in the wastes of Rome, still reeling and recovering from the Second World War. Even further, he establishes Marcello as a sexual wastrel with no sense of what is real and good in life.
After his tryst, he heads back to another equally bleak apartment complex, in a place where roads have yet to be paved, and mud seems to be the common denominator. There, he finds his live-in girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Fureaux), another beautiful brunet, has attempted suicide- and apparently not for the first time, in their spare apartment. She is a wholly conventional woman, who naïvely believes love is the end all and be all of life. As shallow as Marcello is, her utter plastic conventionality may be worse, and when, later in the film, they argue, and he abandons her on a road, tossing her out of his fancy sportscar, she accuses him of being a coward who will end up alone, and he calls her a woman who does not really know what love is, and an emotional brutalizer. He says, ‘A man who agrees to live like this is a finished man, he’s nothing but a worm! I don’t believe in your aggressive, sticky, maternal love! I don't want it, I have no use for it! This isn’t love, it’s brutalization.’ The truth is they are both right about each other, yet they reconcile, as they must have many times before. This morning, he rushes Emma to the hospital, where she is saved, and he has to fend off his fellow paparazzi who want to pounce on any whiff of blood. She loves him, in whatever limited way she can, but is utterly void in understanding the yearnings he has for meaning, so relies on stunts like suicide to keep his attention. Sadly, neither can Marcello understand his yearns.
The next day, a gorgeous Swedish actress, who became a star in America, named Sylvia Rankin (Anita Ekberg), arrives by airplane, and Marcello and his fellow paparazzi are there to greet her. She bewitches him, and is so über-bodacious that she makes Marilyn Monroe seem like a tomboy by comparison. At a press conference she is suitably ditzy, spouting apothegms like, ‘I like lots of things, but there are three things I like most: love, love, and love.’ Yet, she is not as dumb as she plays, such as when she races up the tower in St. Peter’s, just to flirt with Marcello, who is the only one who can keep up with her. Later, they are at a nighttime, outdoor party, where other of what would now be called her ‘posse’, arrive. They dance and carouse. This angers her drunken American boyfriend- presumably a B actor named Robert, played by real B actor Lex Barker, a former movie Tarzan. In one of the film’s drollest scenes, a band of paparazzi are later photographing him passed out drunk, and one of them comments, ‘And to think he played Tarzan.’ Yet the sequence provides for a memorable dance scene to rock and roll music- just then sweeping out of America and becoming an international phenomenon. After an argument between her beau and an obviously gay member of her posse, Sylvia storms off, hurt, and Marcello drives her away. There, he spends the whole night trying to consummate his lust with her, by babbling such inanities as, ‘You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You are mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, earth, home.’ But she is more drawn to howls of dogs and a little kitten she finds- reputedly not part of the script, but happenstance. Then, she discovers the Trevi Fountain, and goes a-wading. She summons Marcello in, and just as they are to kiss, the waters stop running, and the mood is broken. It is an iconic shot, just as famed as the flying Jesus that opened the film, and Ekberg seems to be femininity incarnate. Then, the picaresque moves on, as Marcello returns Sylvia to her hotel, and her beau socks him in the jaw as the paparazzi glee.
Enough of the rich, suburban, and celebrity obsessions. Next, Fellini jabs at public intellectuals and religion. Marcello runs into an old pal of his named Steiner (Alain Cluny)- obviously a gibe at Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher, sciolist, and sophist of sort, who runs a salon full of pseudo-intellectuals and third rate artistes. But, before he attends the salon, he has to cover a bunch of moronic pilgrims, led by children who falsely claim to see the Madonna everywhere- clearly a jab the silly Lady Of Fatima incident in Portugal in 1917. It’s a scene that reminds me of the ‘child trapped in a well’ scene from Woody Allen’s Radio Days, but it’s a burlesque of the idiocy of religion, and clearly shows that Fellini was no old time religiot, even more so than a similar scene in Nights Of Cabiria, which similarly ridiculed pilgrims. This time, however, Fellini does not leaven the scene with Cabiria’s comic rage at being duped; he just shows the folly of those who would follow children through a rainstorm, as the event is covered as if the Second Coming, by tv and radio, as eager as the Church is to capitalize on the selling of anything- even religion, which is even more base than the celebrity worship accorded Sylvia. And, again, the paparazzi are the driving force.
Afterwards, Marcello and Emma go to Steiner’s pretentious salon. Marcello clearly aspires to be like them, and after he and Emma go to an idiotic event with pilgrims who see the Madonna, they go to Steiner’s posh apartment where says he can get Marcello a publisher so he can concentrate on literature, and drop gossip reporting. Yet, Steiner, despite his bravado, is a façade of a man with a depressed nature. He counsels Marcello: ‘Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weighs upon me. Peace frightens me; perhaps I fear it most of all. I feel it is only a façade hiding the face of hell….If one phone call could announce the end of everything? We need to live in a state of suspended animation like a work of art, in a state of enchantment. We have to succeed in loving so greatly that we live outside of time, detached.’ Clearly, he is not all there, but Marcello glosses over this, and envies him his wife and two children, as well as the accoutrements of success that he seems to have.
The next day, Marcello is at a seaside hotel, trying to work, and encounters a thin blond waif, Paola (Valeria Ciangottini), who works there. She is a young teen who represents innocence to him, and they converse- perhaps the only real connection Marcello makes in this film. Later, that night, Marcello encounters his father (Annibale Ninchi), in for a day in Rome. They go out to a club with Paparazzo, and the old man flirts with a French dancer named Fanny (Magali Noel)- a past lover of Marcello’s, then has an attack of some sort at her apartment. Marcello wants to use the attack as a way to connect with the father he was never close to, who was always on the road for business. But, the father keeps his distance and leaves. Interestingly, Fellini not only litters his film with homosexuals, but there is an implied miscegenistic pairing of Paparazzo with one of Fanny’s black dancer friends, the drunken Gloria; a sign of how far ahead of Hollywood visionaries like Fellini were.
Marcello then heads to a party at an old castle, where there are all sorts of the folks he’s encountered earlier in the film- royalty, celebrities, artistes, dilettantes, and he again meets Maddalena. In perhaps the most poetic scene in the film, she leads him into a room, then goes off to a fountain where she can speak to him as if from beyond the grave. Only with this acoustical fluke can both spill their feelings, and he agrees to marry her, only to have her give in to another man’s advances. Ironically, in 8½, Anouk Aimée- who plays Maddalena, will find her character married to Mastroianni’s character, and loveless and dead, just as she prophesies they’ll end up in this film, if they marry. Marcello then leaves the room, and heads to a castle séance, where he boffs an older American painter dilettante named Jane. Then comes the aforementioned scene where he and Emma rage at each other. He returns, picks her up, and as they lay in bed he gets a call that Steiner has shot his two children, and takes off.
The cops are poring over the apartment crime scene like scientists- gathering all the information of death, but understanding nothing of life, as Marcello despairs. He may be recalling Steiner’s little jabs at life, like, ‘Don’t be like me. Salvation doesn’t lie within four walls. I’m too serious to be a dilettante and too much a dabbler to be a professional. Even the most miserable life is better than a sheltered existence in an organized society where everything is calculated and perfected,’ for clues to what occurred, and why the man he idolized did not accept such idolization. It is reminiscent of the end of Crimes And Misdemeanors, by Woody Allen, where that film’s philosopher likewise suicides- although he does not murder before doing so. Marcello then assists a detective in shielding Steiner’s wife from the scene as the paparazzi swarm. Marcello retreats, later that night, to a beach house with a group of young hedonists- many openly gay, and goes viciously wild. He debases several women, and he and the others are all turned out of the house by dawn and head to the beach where a dead ‘sea monster’ has been caught. It’s really a huge manta ray with piercing eyes that do not shut. It’s a symbol of both Christianity and monstrous evil that will not leave Marcello. It’s large, ever observing, but dead within. He wanders off and sees Paola, waving to him from across a small inlet. He cannot hear her and walks away, unable to be seduced by her Siren Song of innocence. He is beyond communication and the reach of such things, after Steiner’s death, and does not care. Perhaps it was Steiner’s death that was the final straw, or his father’s rejection, or Maddalena’s prank at the fountain, or Emma’s smothering, or his own internal loss of self for reasons undisclosed. Marcello is likely to drift to the loneliness that awaits him. The film ends with Paola looking straight at the audience and camera. She is the viewer’s surrogate, and one can only guess at what her eyes will see in the future.
As for Marcello? He is emotionally impotent, if not sexually, he romanticizes love yet runs from it. He seeks insight, but consorts with phonies. He desires fame, yet settles for empty celebrities. Just as La Strada ends with Zampano defeated on a beach, La Dolce Vita ends with Marcello defeated on a beach. The difference is Zampano cares- for what we cannot know, while Marcello doesn’t. He is beyond such things. Whether one of their attitudes is better than the other is up for debate. Did Marcello really have potential, as Steiner suggests, or was he just a glittering pearl- shiny, but with just an ugly stone at his core?
The film’s screenplay, written by Fellini with Ennio Flaiano, is impressive, not just for its written brilliance, but for the boundaries it pushed open for film as an art form. Nino Rota, as usual, provides a superb musical score. Perhaps only the Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann pairing equals the contributions of Fellini and Rota in creating memorable film scores. The art direction by Piero Gherardi, and cinematography by Otello Martelli, are all top notch, as well. The acting is first rate. Marcello Mastroianni went from a second tier Italian film star to an international sensation on the heels of his performance, and Anita Ekberg became one of the top pinup girls of the 1960s. Granted, her acting is not much, but the other females in the film are top notch, and all the supporting cast do well- especially Alain Cluny as Steiner and Annibale Ninchi as Marcello’s father. Thankfully, the film’s original producer, Dino de Laurentiis, didn’t get his way and force Paul Newman into the lead role, for Mastroianni has a facile quality that the steely glare of Newman could never convey.
The two disk DVD, put out by Koch Lorber, is as good as the best work done by The Criterion Collection, and wisely, they’ve bettered their rivals with highly readable golden subtitles that stand out well against the black and white film, something that The Criterion Collection fails to do. Since the film is in multiple languages- Italian, English, French, a dubbed track would be superfluous this time. The restoration job is spectacular- as one of the extras on Disk Two show. The rest are brief and self-congratulatory- some tv commercials Fellini did, some stuff about Fellini’s studio, and badly edited interviews with Ekberg- bloated as a house, and Mastroianni, old and haggard. The film on Disk One is also introduced by Alexander Payne, and has a commentary by film critic and historian Richard Schickel. As usual, it’s a bad and dull commentary from him. He too often states the obvious, provides little historical insight, and even less into individual scenes. There are inexplicable three or four minute pauses at key moments in the film, and while he’s not rotely reading a lecture, one gets the sense that this was just a job for him, not a labor of love.
Some believe that the seven days and nights of the film correspond to the seven hills of Rome or the Seven Deadly Sins. That is not really of import, for great art is never so easily and simply parsed. Whatever the reality is, the fact is that there’s never been a better film about the anomy of the human condition- and it’s not just modernity under scrutiny, for clearly Fellini shows that the pilgrims at the Madonna sighting, are as lost as any of the modern glitterati, thus implying it is endemic to the human condition, and reflected in the very picaresque structure of the film. La Dolce Vita is one of the great works of art by one of the greatest artists of the last century, and in that statement, there’s not a hint of irony.