La Dolce Vita (re-post from my previous site)
Director: Federico Fellini
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Anita Ekberg, Yvonne Furneaux
La Dolce Vita opens with a very famous shot of a helicopter flying a gigantic statue of Christ over the city of Rome, and the ludicrous nature of this action, in a way, completely sets the tone for this incredibly famous film. What on earth is going on, you may ask. To which Fellini replies: Exactly.
Marcello Rubini (Mastroianni) is a gossip columnist who kind of sort of both loves and hates his life. The movie doesn’t exactly have a plot; it’s more an exploration of a “day in the life” of this man. We move from episode to episode, all the while following Marcello as he is buffeted from one situation to another. He is not exactly in control of his fate, and we are along for the ride as life moves him through the film.
Marcello as the central character is interesting. He is not a hero, not in the least. I’m not even sure he’s a good man. He’s a weak man, a man who talks of being taken seriously then gets distracted. He has a girlfriend and a lover and still gets seduced by other women. He flirts with anything in a skirt, yet he does so because he feels he has to, not because he wants to. He speaks of love with such shallow feeling, it’s frightening. Yet for all of this, he is not condoned by the film. I do not envy his life; I don’t see how anyone could. He is a man sick to death of his life – why would you envy that? Yes, his life throws him in the path of celebrities and beautiful women, but he takes such little enjoyment from it, it’s downright depressing. Ultimately, though, Fellini loves his Marcello for all his faults. It’s a fascinating character study, really. Marcello is not good, but he’s not evil. He’s not a hero, but he’s far from a villain. He’s just a man. An ordinary, tired, almost middle-aged man who wonders what his life has become. If anything, Marcello is sad. That’s how I read him at least, and if ever there was a character open to interpretation, this is it.
There are moments of tremendous poignancy which, for me, emotionally ground the film in the middle of all the whacko-nutso behavior. Two sequences in particular stand out as moments of sad gravity: the Steiner sequence and the scenes with Marcello’s father. In the first, Marcello meets with his old friend Steiner. Steiner is everything Marcello is not: serious, focused, married, a father. Marcello idolizes Steiner and treats him with reverence. Marcello goes to a dinner party at Steiner’s apartment, and the people who are there are serious artists – or, at least, much more serious about art and living than all the vainglorious celebrities that Marcello reports on. I found myself thinking, “Ah! At last! We have found the hero of the film! This is the man that will make over Marcello!” Fellini, knowing all too well the pedestal that he had seated Steiner upon, knew it would not do to have a hero, not in this film, and in a shockingly sad and devastating sequence, reminds us that people like Steiner, as wonderful as they may seem, are only human too.
In the second sequence, Marcello’s father, a traveling salesman, comes to visit unexpectedly. Marcello takes him out on the town to a cabaret, where they all get drunk and Marcello marvels at his father’s excesses. Perhaps he was cut from the same cloth? Marcello’s father goes home with a cabaret girl but has some sort of an episode, and he winds up leaving her apartment looking weak and frail. This, to me, is not the sad part. The part that sticks in my mind is what immediately follows. Marcello begs his father to stay one more day in Rome. Begs. Completely begs. And his father says no. This simple exchange, only a minute or two on screen, is beyond sad. A grown man has finally realized that he doesn’t know his father but that he WANTS to know his father, and his father steadfastly refuses. This little moment of heartbreak and agony in the midst of all the excess of the rest of the film reminds you that Fellini can do serious just as well as he can do ridiculous.
How Fellini chooses to inhabit his world is fascinating. I don’t just mean the main characters, but all the people who appear on screen. When watching this film, watch the extras. Look at them. They are just as bizarre as the characters with lines. Look at the woman with the spider rhinestone glasses. Who is she? No one is incidental in Fellini’s world – even his extras have enormous stories that they aren’t telling.
I was struck by the unbelievable shot composition of La Dolce Vita - even in comparison with other fantastically photographed films. Holy cow, but Fellini has an impeccable eye. It’s not something I really noticed the first time I watched it about five years ago. I admit that, in that first viewing, I had no idea what the eff I was watching. I feel like I was watching it just to watch it, without really understanding it. I don’t pretend to understand La Dolce Vita completely after my second viewing, but I feel like I got more out of it this time around, and I was amazed the shot composition more this time around. Scene after scene is breathtaking. I put it right up there with Sven Nykvist’s work in The Seventh Seal, an absolute favorite of mine. Fellini clearly loves black and white, as he uses black and white phenomenally well, not just in the photography but also the costumes. Some shots are symmetrical, beautiful in their alignment. Others are point of view – when Marcello runs up the tower steps, we suddenly see the curved wall through his eyes, and get a rush of excitement. And Fellini loves the panorama. His crowd-scapes are fascinating. I can’t even try to logically put my feelings into words – you just have to see it for yourself.
One thing I have recently started to notice about films is the location they present. I don’t mean, “Hey, look, shot in London!” Rather, what is the version of the location that the director is showing us? The New York City shown in, say, Sex and the City is a very different New York City shown in Midnight Cowboy. So through the lens of these new glasses, I find it interesting to discover Fellini’s Rome. For this is, most definitely, Fellini’s Rome. It is a city of dirt roads right next to glittering new high rises. There is dust and construction and clutter all over the place, contrasting with the clean, white lines of sophisticated buildings, lending the city a constant sense of pandemonium. The city seems to be in the middle of nowhere – characters drive for two seconds and are then in the country. Fellini’s Rome seems an isolated place to me.
In many ways, La Dolce Vita is a bit of a tough nut to crack. Made between Nights of Cabiria and 8½, La Dolce Vita clearly straddles Fellini’s transition from straightforward, realistic narrative to off-the-deep-end whimsy and surrealism. There are elements of both in this, the middle film. It’s a film that demands repeated viewings; I have a feeling that what I get out of it will change the more I live my life. As a film, I feel like I still don’t totally get it, but it’s a heady ride.
Add-on: Because I’m me and I’m still copying old reviews from my previous site onto this one (as is the case with La Dolce Vita – this review was written about a year ago), I seriously wanted to re-evaluate the score I gave this. Do I really like Fellini THAT much? No, I thought; I’m not really a Fellini fan, and he goes to some really weird places in his later films. But then I re-read what I wrote, and I remembered exactly how excited this movie made me. Just how good the photography is. Just how sad parts of it really get. Just how much it really did touch me, in a strange Fellini-esque way. I will NOT let my less than enthusiastic opinion of Fellini in general deter me from recognizing how much I actually enjoy this film of his.
Arbitrary rating: 8/10, and in terms of Fellini, one of my favorites. I tend not to enjoy him nearly as much after he went off the deep end with his later works.