This year marks Federico Fellini’s 100th birthday. So its only fitting that I revisit what is largely considered his magnum opus; La Dolce Vita (1960).
La Dolce Vita doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure. It is presented in segments, chapters if you will, depicting a week in the life of one Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a gossip journalist.
In 1960 Rome, Marcello is a celebrity-hounding journo who at the same time, tries his best to keep up with the sweet and glamorous life (la dolce vita) himself. Apart from being a full-time journalist, he’s also in the process of writing a book of which he’s currently in the research phase.
Marcello seems to be directly or indirectly involved in every news worthy event that happens in Rome. He manages to effortlessly mingle in circles that by all rights should be wary of letting him belong, considering his vocation. His best friends (who are also the closest the film has to actual antagonists) are the photo-journalists who literally scramble over each other, hungry for the heart of the stories and never considering the ramifications of their ‘job’ on the individuals they’re hounding.
The callous paparazzi are the first of their kind. I’m being quite factual by this as the word paparazzi is literally derived from the name of one of the photo journalists in this film; Paparazzo (Walter Santezzo). This is also testament to the film’s legacy and impact on the general consciousness.
Marcello is loved and loathed (in equal measure) by his female acquaintances, many times themselves the subjects of his stories. Their attitude in his regard many times is influenced on the way he painted them in his stories.
Throughout most of the film’s three (felt like six) hour running time, Marcello is depicted as a philandering, happy-go-lucky man of the world who is only interested in his next female conquest. He’s driven by the notion of bedding silly, spoilt and empty but outwardly beautiful women. Gradually, a richer, more introspective Marcello starts making an appearance in what seems to be a fruitless battle with himself.
He has a home with Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) who once upon a time must have been a wonderful, carefree woman. The Emma we see however, is a depressed, suicidal shell of the person she once was. And Marcello knows he’s to blame. She spends her days home alone, wondering what he’s up to and more importantly, who he’s sleeping with. She’s become a sad, detestable person she herself has trouble tolerating. Marcello’s patience with her fluctuates from one day to the next, acting kindly and choosing his words sensitively one day and calling her crazy and kicking her out of cars the next.
Marcello sees Emma as someone simply there to drag him down, to stop him from what he wants to become. He’s different around her than he is with everyone else, and it really isn’t surprising; he finds it quite difficult to maintain an air of suave indifference, while for example, he’s driving to an assignment while being force-fed hard boiled eggs by his motherly partner.
The biggest irony is that Marcello doesn’t know what he wants to be. He’s dead set in his ways and dedicated to a lifestyle which certainly doesn’t look easy to maintain. At the same time, its evident in his eyes that he yearns for more. And that which he yearns for apparently isn’t found in the beds of hookers he gives rides home to.
Marcello’s assignments bring him in close proximity of the most beautiful and sought after women such as Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), a forlorn socialite and minor celebrity who’s tired of being recognised and as a result, has started falling out of love with Rome.
Long accustomed to everyone sucking up to her, Maddalena acts like a spoilt brat. She opens up to him about her disillusion with Rome and life in general during a night out on the town together. Conversely, Marcello argues in favour of the city life, likening Rome to a peaceful jungle. The night ends with the both of them giving a middle-aged prostitute they meet a ride home, inviting themselves into her house and occupying her bed for the night. Its these sides to Marcello’s assignments that worry Emma so.
We meet Sylvia in a different chapter.
Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) is a world-famous Swedish actress who arrives in Rome to shoot scenes for a film. Unlike Maddalena, Sylvia is a tourist here, an unknown to the man in the street so to an extent, she has the luxury of anonymity. Her character is quite bland, however I’m sure this must have felt like an accurate representation of the Italian idea of foreign beauties; women with beautiful appearances but not much else going for them. She expresses her sense of freedom in particularly silly ways, such as walking around the moonlit streets of Rome with a cat on her head.
As fate would have it, good old Marcello once again manages to find himself alone with the foreign beauty in a sequence which culminates in the iconic Fontana Di Trevi scene.
I’ve been to Trevi a few years back and I know for a fact how resplendent this monument is. But I’ve been there in the early afternoon and during peak tourist season. Saying it was chaotic would be an understatement. The piazza was swarming with tourists such as myself and wardens ready to pounce on anyone standing or sitting too close to the actual fountain. Seeing it here, sixty years younger, in glorious black and white and removed from the chaos, it carries a sincere, ethereal beauty.
It was at this moment that I realised that I will never really know this Rome. This might have been a realistic depiction of 1960 Rome, however it remains a far-removed fantasy today.
Sylvia wades into the water, throwing a life-line to all-too-serious-for-his-health Marcello to join in. Perhaps Marcello could find meaning by expecting less. By learning to enjoy simple moments such as this.
Then we have Steiner, a character I can easily say is one of the most beautifully realised on-screen characters I’ve seen. Older and wiser than Marcello, Steiner seems to have a good, solid grip on things. Marcello looks up to him as a friend and mentor. Also a socialite, like Marcello, Steiner whiles away his hours making waves in important circles. He surrounds himself with a number of like-minded friends and throws events in his home where everyone is invited to debate and discuss the philosophical issues they hold to heart.
Their lives do contrast in one major way, however. While Marcello feels like he’s eternally searching for that which cannot be found, Steiner seems to have found it. He’s firmly anchored to the ground by his two children and loving wife. In Marcello’s eyes, he’s success and satisfaction incarnate. That’s why Marcello is left speechless at heartfelt advice Steiner gives him.
‘The most miserable life is better than an existence protected by society where everything’s organised and perfect,’ Steiner muses. He’s torn between the comfort and security provided by routine and family life and the spiritual enlightenment brought on on by insecurity and spontaneity he feels he’s missing out on.
I happen to know of a number of real-world Steiners. A modern Richard Cory as conceived by Edwin Arlington Robinson and popularised by the Simon and Garfunkel song, Steiner is that person who seems to have everything when in reality is struggling more than someone scrimping to make each paycheck last.
It is through Steiner, one of the truly tragic figures in cinema, and his actions, that Marcello’s world is brutally knocked off its axis. Through him and Marcello, Fellini holds up a mirror to his audiences’ faces, tasking us to judge where our priorities lie.
It has been stated time and time again that LDV is the best film ever made. I cannot ever subscribe to such generic statements about any film as I do not believe there exists such a thing as a ‘best’ or ‘perfect’ film, regardless of how entertaining I may find it. Just like there cannot be a best or worst painting or song. It is a good film, and I can only fathom how even more impressive it must have been back in 1960.
Above all, the film works as a sermon of sorts, and yes, many times, it does feel preachy or at least, like its reaching too far with its characters. It manages to depict and glorify the sweet life while at the same time, perfectly illustrating how damn empty and nihilistic it is.
It does take its time getting to the point and the experience can be daunting. Everyone isn’t a socialite, and thus Marcello and his type might not be the easiest to empathise or even connect with. Most of us cannot really imagine what the day-to-day lives of such people must be like. However, after some reflection, I was able to recognise a lot of people I know (or know of) in Marcello. Characters in futile search for inner peace, satisfaction and meaning that they know can’t be found in the roads they’ve taken. And yet, they’ve taken those roads too far.
Marcello embodies all of us who wish to gain a better understanding or even find some meaning in life by following roads that promise to lead to fulfilment. He’s too intelligent and self-aware to be able to slow down in his pursuit and simply enjoy the ride. When it dawns on him that no route alone (without a steadfast commitment to being true to oneself), can lead to even scratch the surface of what he wants, it is evidently too late for him to do anything about it.
There is such a thing as too much awareness. And it is a curse.
A word on technique: apart from the fact that it features the Trevi fountain, the film is famous for one other reason; it’s the definition of ‘slow burner’. I’m consciously avoiding critiquing the length of the segments and hypothesising whether they could have been trimmed down in editing. The film is the product of a world sixty years younger; it is what it is).
The cinematography is really beautiful. The landscapes are other worldly. The lighting lends itself to the story like a paintbrush in the hands of a master painter. This is especially evident in the Trevi scene and in another scene when Marcello and Emma have one of their breakup-breakdowns in the car.
The one thing that I guess couldn’t be helped but which I still consider a definite fly in the ointment is the dubbed audio. Every sound we hear is dubbed over. I had once read somewhere that due to sound pollution especially coming from the nearby Rome Ciampino Airport, back then recording live audio in CineCitta presented a number of challenges, forcing every sound to be dubbed later on. This may or may have not been the case, still, the picture suffers for it to this day.
What I am sure of is that I’ve watched a very good, even great film which delivers an authoritative commentary on existentialism, while also serving as an effective satire on the concept of fame, even if the language it uses to communicate is stilted and rough round the edges.
The fact that I’m still thinking about it and piecing it together today, almost a full week after watching it, is in my view, the mark of impeccable cinema.
Have you watched La Dolce Vita? What did you think of it? Has this review affected your opinion of it in any way? Let me know in the comments below!
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