La Dolce Vita (1960)
Written by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, and Pier Paolo Pasolini
Directed by Federico Fellini
It’s not often that a film’s inspiration starts with a trend in women’s fashion, but that is where La Dolce Vita began. Sack dresses were becoming popular in Italy and would eventually become one of the iconic pieces of 1960s fashion. Fellini said they fascinated him because they were so flowing and formless that you did not know the body type of the woman wearing them. This led him to think about the tremendous aesthetic beauty happening in the wealthier circles he was moving in as his filmmaking reputation grew, how, from the outside, it was flowing and luxurious, but that the truth was hidden inside somewhere. Fellini also had tremendous help building out this initial thought with a staff of five writers, including longtime collaborator Tullio Pinelli. Pinelli met Fellini at a newsstand which he refers to as a moment of creative lightning striking. The two were in sync from the start and, with the other writers, told a story of the excess of Italian nightlife looking very different in the early morning light.
Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is a tabloid journalist who experiences a potentially life-changing week in his life throughout the film. The film’s structure is broken into seven episodes: a prologue, an epilogue, and an intermezzo. Throughout these small stories, he encounters people from his past and present. Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) is a wealthy heiress drowning herself in alcohol and hedonism, seemingly possessing no ambition for anything more. Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) is a Swedish actress visiting Rome to promote her new film and charms Marcello. The one encounter that starts to jostle the journalist’s drift through life is Steiner (Alain Cuny), a longtime friend who is married with kids and intellectual. Marcello attends a party at Steiner’s home, where he admires the beauty of his friend’s life, but Steiner relays the apprehensions he has about his children growing up in a world where love is becoming a rarer thing among people.
The second encounter that shakes up Marcello is when his father comes to visit Rome for a day. Accompanying the two men is the photographer Paparazzo, who with he shares a lot of how he feels. When Marcello was a child, he never really got to know his father as the man was always off working. The trio goes to a club where Marcello tries to impress his dad by hooking him up with a dancer and former girlfriend. The encounter gets wilder when they head back to the dancer’s place, where the older man experiences a heart attack. The next morning, Marcello implores his father to stay one more day to rest; in actuality, he just wants to spend time with the man. However, his father insists he needs to keep on moving, and Marcello is left waving and brokenhearted as his father drives away.
La Dolce Vita is an overwhelming deluge of imagery, music, and conflict. Marcello’s career is a point of contention. Does he keep living comfortably while reporting celebrity gossip, or should he aspire to higher literary goals? Despite being surrounded by glamorous women who seem eager to go to bed with him, our protagonist has a fiancee at home, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), who is clearly depressed and becoming suicidal. He is not emotionally equipped for this relationship but feels guilty about abandoning her altogether. It’s not enough that he’d hesitate to cheat on her, yet another instance where he refuses to make a choice about his life, wanting to exist in a state of Limbo. The city of Rome is a point of contention, being selectively rebuilt in the post-War period to accommodate the wealthy & powerful, while those who suffered the most because of the War continue to live in squalor.
Fellini’s struggle with Catholicism, when juxtaposed against modernity, continues here, mainly in a sequence about a supposed miracle. Marcello takes Paparazzo and Emma to the country, where he’s following up on a story about two children who claim to have been blessed with a vision of the Madonna. We watch as the crowds become more ravenous to possess something meaningful in this bleak existence. During a brief rainstorm, the children shelter under a tree, and when it passes, they suddenly tell the crowd that this tree also sheltered the Virgin Mary. The crowd responds by ravenously tearing the tree apart, desperate to cling to a branch or leaf. During this melee, a sick child brought by his mother seeking a divine cure is trampled to death. This horrific scene clearly leaves a mark on Marcello’s psyche.
La Dolce Vita is a movie that will frustrate many audiences because of its jerky narrative flow. But that’s all intentional. Marcello is always in one of two states: hedonistic pleasure or abject boredom. The moments of boredom compel him to seek stimulation through alcohol, women, or parties. Yet, these things quickly bore him, sending the man back home, where the cycle begins anew. The strange revival of Roman Catholicism as one means of numbing the horror of the War exists in tandem with the excess. They are both ways of avoiding reality, refusing to contend with what human existence has become after the world watches some of the most horrific acts perpetrated on such a massive scale.
Steiner represents a counterpoint to Marcello’s father, a devoted & loving dad who worries about the world his generation is preparing for the next. The sequence where Marcello just listens to Steiner talk is a warm, beautiful moment. However, it is more touching when you think about it juxtaposed with the episode where Marcello’s father visits. How Steiner’s story concludes is one of the most shattering moments of the picture and a significant turning point for the protagonist. Marcello has a few strings he’s clinging to by the time we meet him at the film’s start. As these connections fray and break, he sinks further into meaninglessness.
The film’s title is meant to drip with irony, “The Sweet Life,” because where we live, Marcello is sitting in his own pool of misery and self-loathing. You’ll see this picture referenced in montages of the great movies, and they often choose the scene where Marcello cavorts with Anita Ekberg in a fountain. Yes, it’s a visually and aesthetically pleasing scene, but the emphasis on that rather than some of the more powerful moments belies a truth about the modern interpretation of cinema.
In the same way that figures like Martin Luther King Jr are sanitized for the consumption of the masses in order not to stir up dissent, so too has our best art been neutered. The powerful who make these decisions know that most of us are too tired, distracted, and generally worn down to engage with art on a consistently meaningful level. They can make these sweeping generalizations in how they present old media, knowing that most people won’t even pay attention, and those that do aren’t going to muster up the energy to dive deeper. We literally walk around with mini-computers in our pockets that hold the entire knowledge of humanity, and we’ve been conditioned to use them to distract ourselves from life. Our hedonism isn’t quite as glamorous as Marcello’s; we don’t have the money to afford such a lifestyle. We are more like those religious pilgrims grasping at false divinities, aching to consume their promise of making us feel fulfilled, knowing that disappointment waits for us at sunrise.
La Dolce Vita is a culmination of Fellini’s core themes from the previous three pictures, the melancholy happiness, the fragmented episodes of life that may or may not add up to anything, and the contrasting energies of frenzied partying and sobering reality. Existing is not the same as living; people seem to have just been existing for so long, forgetting how to be alive. When we must leave Marcello, we have just watched him try and fail to communicate with a young woman on the beach. They are yards apart, unable to get closer. She’s shouting something that’s drowned out by the crashing waves. She tries hand gestures, but he shrugs, showing he still doesn’t understand. They exchange frustrated but understanding smiles while a partygoer takes Marcello by the hand, walking back to the house with him. He returns to the party despite looking so miserable as part of it. He’s forgotten how to do anything else.