Film: La Dolce Vita
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.
Great directors get known for both their body of work and for specific films. Say “Hitchcock,” for instance, and given enough time, people will come up with a good number of his films, but the first and most visceral reactions will probably be films like Vertigo and Rear Window and not The Manxman. With Fellini, one of those visceral, go-to movies is undoubtedly La Dolce Vita.
Because of this, and because of the structure of the film, it has been broken down, studied, and analyzed like few other films. In truth, the film takes place over a series of seven non-consecutive days and nights, and this brings up some interesting religious parallels. There are, for instance, seven deadly sins and seven virtues and a great deal has been written tying the seven nights of this film to the seven deadly sins. I’m not going to go there. It may well be what Fellini intended. He may also have chosen the number seven as the seven days of the week or Shakespeare’s seven ages of Man, and I could probably work out something with a few more watches of the film that would fit either of those—especially the second one.
I’d rather look at the film as a whole, though, and discuss the gestalt of the film rather than the individual pieces because regardless of how each piece of the film fits together or works symbolically, the film itself does have—at least to me—an overarching feeling and a meaning that I take from it.
The title, La Dolce Vita translates roughly to “The Sweet Life,” and on the surface, that is exactly what the film is about. As characters, we have the idle rich, the dilettante artists, the aggressively hipster, and the bored bourgeoisie. Our main character is Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a former author who has sunk to the ranks of journalist and who essentially looks for celebrities to write stories about. He is frequently accompanied by Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), a celebrity photographer willing to do virtually anything for a picture (and thus the source of the word “paparazzi” for omnipresent celebrity photographers). Marcello has a sometimes suicidal girlfriend named Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) and frequently may or may not have sex with wealthy heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimee).
As he moves through the film, it becomes evident that Marcello is different from many of othe people he interacts with in one significant way—he is sometimes introspective enough to realize that he is wasting his life in the constant and worthless pursuit of the life of pleasure that seems to be the central existence of the celebrities with whom he hobnobs. He meets, for instance, Swedish-American movie star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), whose life seems to consist of thinking whatever is in her head at the moment is frightfully important to everyone else, and who flits from idea to idea at a moment’s notice. She finds a stray kitten, for instance, and sends Marcello off to find milk in the middle of the night, but the moment she sees the Trevi Fountain, the kitten is forgotten in her desire to jump into the water.
There’s a part of Marcello who desires nothing more than this sort of existence, of living on a whim and an impulse, and having the money and power to do exactly what he wants whenever he wishes it. Not able to make it as a more artistic writer, his method of doing that is by attaching himself to those around him who can live in this fashion, and thus he is able to partake in this sweet life by osmosis, a sort of human remora living on the scraps. His reattachment to the world in which he truly lives comes from the person of Steiner (Alain Cuny). Steiner is an intellectual and has the sort of life that Marcello seems to want, but Steiner, too, has doubts. Near the middle of the film, he tells Marcello between a comfortable, material life and the more interesting and risky world of a spiritual life. So, when Steiner kills his own children and himself, it appears evident that in the end, he couldn’t make that decision.
Marcello does, though, eventually fading even from the ranks of journalism into those of the press agent, talking up stars and trying to arrange publicity for them, all in his continual attempts to latch himself to that sweet life that he has chased for the entire film. It eludes him for the entire film, too. Why? I think it’s because he thinks too much. Those people throughout the film who seem pleased with that indulgent, hedonistic existence are those who don’t appear to have a thought beyond their next pleasure. Marcello, on the other hand, is essentially excluded from that life for the very reason that he thinks about it so much—he can’t have it because he wants it.
The film is bookended by scenes that seem like they play into this idea. At the start, a helicopter flies a statue of Christ over Rome en route to taking the statue to the Vatican. The spiritual world is, in a sense, leaving Rome behind, and while the statue appears to bless the masses below, it is also something entirely out of reach. At the end, fishermen haul what looks like a dead manta ray onto the beach. Unlike the Christ statue, the manta is real, disgusting, and dead, and is also close enough to touch. In essence, while Marcello has forced himself to strive toward that goal of unobtainable life in the clouds, all he can really achieve is the real, and the real is unattractive and a little terrifying.
It is a great piece of art and a great film. I find it interesting that the film is frequently listed as both a drama and a comedy. I can’t call this a comedy. This isn’t because it’s not funny in places, nor even because of the brutal murder of children in the last hour. I can’t call this a comedy, because it is entirely the opposite of one—it’s a tragedy in the classic sense. Marcello is a tragic figure because he can’t have what he wants, and the reason for it is two-fold. First, he can’t have it because he wants it too much. Second, and more importantly, the life that he desires really only exists in fantasy. Even Sylvia, who is as much a muse to this sweet life as anyone in this film, is forced to return to dry land and suffer the indignation of being slapped in front of the press for the peering and leering eyes of the public in the tabloids.
That life might truly be sweet, but it's an empty sweetness. And that's the point.
Why to watch La Dolce Vita: It’s influential enough that it added a word to the lexicon.
Why not to watch: The characters are vacuous intentionally.