LA DOLCE VITA (Federico Fellini, 1959)

It seems hard to recall, even harder to digest, that Italy’s Federico Fellini was once nearly as highly regarded as Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami is today. For me, Fellini’s importance lies foremost in his early contribution to the scripts for such irreplaceable Roberto Rossellini films as Rome, Open City (1945), Paisà (1946) and, above all, Rossellini’s masterpiece, Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950). On his own, Fellini’s best films, I vitelloni (1953), La strada (1954), Il bidone (1955), The Nights of Cabiria (1956), Fellini Satyricon (1969), Roma (1972), And the Ship Sails On (1983) and Ginger and Fred (1986), are all deeply affecting works despite flights of sentiment or fancy. The White Sheik (1952) is also an estimable achievement; and, however meretricious the whole, Amarcord (1974) boasts a couple of fine passages. One film, though, remains hugely debatable: La dolce vita (The Sweet Life), which won the top prize at Cannes mostly as a compromise choice and on the basis of the filmmaker’s past accomplishments. It was now evident— (1963) pressed the point, making it the film’s premise—that Fellini wasn’t clear as to what he wanted to say but nonetheless felt he ought to say something important. La dolce vita has its highs and lows, its good moments and bad, but it’s ultimately indecipherable. Not ambiguous, mind you; indecipherable.

The film’s stunning opening movement, though, is a model of clarity; it is also, perhaps, the finest footage Fellini ever shot. It is, with that of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1951), the most brilliant opening of any Italian film. There is no music, only natural sounds. In the heavens, suspended from a helicopter transporting it to St. Peter’s Square, a statue of Jesus Christ, in bright sunlight, causes deep shadows to ripple across various sights and groups of Romans below: after it passes the ruins of several public arches, a city street populated by running, playfully noisy children; an expanse of apartment buildings, with one of the crew of workers responsible for this prodigious construction—none of the buildings appear occupied yet—saluting Christ the Worker; on an apartment building rooftop, girls, sunbathing, who arise to wave at the boys in the second, press helicopter, who flirt back, as the noise of the engine disappoints attempts at communication between the boys above and the girls below; another expanse of unpopulated rooftops that, in tandem with the construction to house more and more solvent people, convey the message, fifteen years after the end of the war, that people aren’t home because Rome is finally back to work; to the pealing of bells, St. Peter’s Church and St. Peter’s Square. Work—the statue of Christ the Worker, and the transportation of it—contrasts with leisure (children at play; sunbathers), with the pair of press persons a focal point of mediation as they follow the work to report on it and become distracted in their labor by their sex drive: what thematic compression Fellini accomplishes here! And more: amidst indications of Rome’s classical past (ruins; even if faux, the statue), the simultaneous suggestions of Christianity’s shadow across current Roman life and of a new secular hedonism as all but one, the construction worker saluting Christ the Worker (and even this particular gesture is ambiguous in terms of the saluter’s intent), either receive the statue and its movement as a carnival-type event or ignore it for the sake of more pleasurable concerns. Indeed, the transportation of the statue to St. Peter’s Square—“to the Pope,” as one of the press pair puts it—implies the concentration of religion and faith into one self-enclosed spot (Vatican City—the city within the city)—if you will, to a small patch of public consciousness, or even a patch outside public consciousness. (It’s worth noting that only one other “religious” segment will distantly follow in the three-hour film, and this will pointedly involve a religious hoax perpetrated by mischievous children.) Thus at the outset Fellini heralds a terrific film, in which fiction bends in the direction of the sort of sharp satirical documentary that characterized Jean Vigo’s finest work, A propos de Nice (1929), but with the greater size and sweep we associate with Fellini. The heralded film, alas, never materializes.

One of the press persons in the helicopter is the film’s protagonist, gossip journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni, in the role that brought him international stardom); his companion is a photographer, Paparazzo—the name that, pluralized, yielded the new word paparazzi. Immediately after the film’s opening movement, the scene cuts to a nightclub where Rubini and Paparazzo are stalking rich, famous patrons; an exotic “oriental” floor show mocking the Buddha and the sacred in general forges a connection between the earlier ignored Christ statue and this new passage hard on its heels. Scoop: one of the “important” patrons is eating snails! (For whatever it’s worth, Fellini in a much later culinary interview expressed disgust at the idea of people eating snails.) After intruding on a couple with his ever-ready camera, Paparazzo is thrown outdoors, where in fact a pack of paparazzi lies in wait for exiting members of Rome’s wealthy elite. Meanwhile, inside the club, Marcello talks to Maddalena (Anouk Aimée, in a striking performance), a rich society girl, picks her up, spends the night with her, and returns home the next morning. His mistress, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), who is fixated on his infidelity, has spent a horribly lonely night alone in their barely furnished, perhaps just-moved-into apartment. She is moaning and writhing on their bed, having taken poison; Marcello rushes her to hospital. She is all right. Fellini scores one point of irony as Marcello begs a fellow trash journalist not to report the suicide attempt.

After such a promising start, La dolce vita has sunk here into television soap opera, where it will wallow too often, especially with regards to the turbulent, unsatisfying Marcello-Emma relationship, a neurotic mess of his occasional coldness and cruelty and her nagging and self-pity. (The mistress Anjelica Huston plays in Woody Allen’s 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors derives from Fellini’s Emma.) To be sure, Fellini is making a point about contemporary casual sex, and the disorder and hurt feelings this invites, in the main metropolis of a nominally Catholic country; but he will reiterate the point ad nauseum. The class-erasing meeting ground of the rich and bored (like Maddalena) and the drawn-to-the-rich and apathetic (like Marcello) is still more sociological territory that loses ground for our interest as the film repetitiously proceeds. (For now, Marcello notes that he likes Rome because it’s a good place to hide, while Maddalena notes the futility of her attempts to hide there.) Marcello tells Maddalena that Rome is a “dank jungle,” but so is the film. Also, there is something unspeakably harsh about the introduction of a character at the point of her suicide attempt, no matter the degree to which its shock value underscores Marcello’s appalling lack of consideration for Emma’s feelings. Some may find Fellini’s presentation a forceful formal embodiment of this lack, while others will find it taking on (however inadvertently) the color of Marcello’s lack of consideration for Emma. Too often, as here, Fellini fails to find a distancing strategy sufficient for separating his (presumably) humane commentary from the odious event itself. By contrast, his final masterpiece, Fellini Satyricon, abounds with superlative distancing.

The next, very long movement of the film begins with the arrival in Rome of a voluptuous Hollywood star who is a magnet for the attention of the paparazzi the instant her plane lands. Sylvia is like a child insofar as the sights and sounds of Rome keep her wide-eyed and amazed; following her press conference, Marcello tags along as she winds her way up the dome of St. Peter’s. She is dressed as a priest—yet another element suggesting a relaxation of religious observance and faith. The world’s most celebrated church, for her, is a tourist attraction—secular, not religious; and Marcello is only doing his job, propelled also by his sex drive. The swank with which Fellini invests this part of the film, its breathlessness accentuated by Nino Rota’s music, dilutes the satire to a mild gloss; diluting it further is the Jamesian contrast between American innocent and knowing, jaded Europeans, which seems out of place here. As Sylvia, Anita Ekberg is as foolish as Fellini, coarsely, intends her to be. He is reputed to have tricked the Swedish celebrity to deliver a self-caricature by instructing her to pretend to be Ava Gardner!

The Sylvia-Marcello pairing has just begun; how easily the handsome journalist slips into the role of the Hollywood star’s tour guide. The two hit a nightclub—the Eternal City has become a city of endless dancing and glitter,—and, stray cat in hand, Sylvia wades in Trevi Fountain, with puppy dog Marcello following. It is here, perhaps, that La dolce vita attains its utmost flamboyance; but the Rome tour crash lands. Sylvia’s husband is a jealous match for Emma; when Marcello and Sylvia return, he humiliates his wife by smacking her in public. He also hits Marcello to the ground, whereupon a fellow reporter, camera in hand, asks Marcello to raise his head just a little. A passage that began so buoyantly, if superficially, has collapsed, then, into more soap opera, and punctuated by the same ironical point made by Marcello’s pleas to a reporter to keep Emma’s suicide attempt under wraps. Those who insist that the film is great have much to account for!

One of the arguments in the film’s favor, misguided though it may be, is how entertaining a film Fellini has wrought. What difference does that make? Presumably, we are speaking here of a work of art, one that in fact has been compared structurally and in its scope to Dante’s “Inferno” in The Divine Comedy, not a light comedy or pulse-racing romantic melodrama. Indeed, in this context the beguiling surface helps to seduce us into the posh aimlessness of much of the film’s activity rather than providing the distance to help us into an analytical frame of mind. In other words, the film’s “entertaining” quality is counterproductive; it makes the film “easier,” to be sure, and worse, not better.

Fortunately, the next scene strikes a deeper chord. It is Rubini’s encounter with his friend Steiner in a church. Steiner, a nonbeliever, has been visiting a priest purely out of intellectual friendship; he is probably Jewish (“These priests aren’t afraid of the devil,” he tells Marcello). In the film’s finest role Alain Cuny gives the performance of a lifetime; Steiner’s humanism and profound disaffection are palpable. Moreover, Cuny’s delicacy has inspired Mastroianni, otherwise so rivetingly intense in the film, to a similar subtlety and delicacy. We learn in this scene that Rubini is disenchanted with and selfconscious about the kind of writing he does for a living; he is at least maintaining the fiction of writing a serious book, a novel. When Steiner praises a recent article of Rubini’s he has read, Rubini’s embarrassment pierces. Steiner, sincere, found the piece “enthusiastic.” When Steiner, at the priest’s invitation, plays Bach on the church organ, Rubini is reflective rather than reactive for the first time in the film. In short, Steiner’s humanity helps Rubini, however fleetingly, reconnect with his own humanity. This quiet encounter, so richly detailed psychologically, contrasts sharply with what has preceded it; but even when Fellini is being unusually tactful and good, it seems, he’s up to no good, for this splendid passage, and Marcello’s dinner at the Steiners’ home later on, when Steiner’s depth as loving spouse and father is revealed to us, prove to be something of a manipulative set-up for the film’s big heart-walloping event: Steiner’s unexpected suicide. Fellini is like God; what he giveth he also taketh away.

The Christian faith, the film now contends, has so degenerated that it has become the plaything of children. Marcello, Paparazzo and Emma attend a scene of media frenzy: a little brother and sister insist that the Virgin Mary has revealed herself to them in a vision. Gathered lookers-on and the press indulge this nonsense, while the sensible local priest voices skepticism; the children’s grandfather is on his knees for reporters, singing “Ave Maria” at the promise of a cigar as payment when he is done. The moment is pop-eyed, and again Fellini’s supporters will grab the convenient argument that the carnival atmosphere he conjures provides an index of the children’s hoax and the attendant hysteria, while his detractors will grab the equally convenient argument that the same atmosphere indulges precisely what Fellini claims to be criticizing and satirizing. There is no winning this debate, however, because clearly Fellini is himself encouraging both sides to their opposing positions. This is the insincere cinema of “having it both ways,” although, thankfully, the episode’s resolution leaves no doubt about the falsity of the perceived “miracle.” Whatever its cross-purposes, the passage stings sufficiently to establish it as the second highest point of La dolce vita, and as one of the funniest examples in cinema of the reduction of religious faith and experience to a mass and marketable commodity. Here, for the first and last time, the film upholds the satirical standard set by its great opening movement.

At this point the film isn’t half over, but almost all of what follows is more bloated than sharp, more decorative than penetrating. To be sure, La dolce vita is far better than such relentless garbage as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972); at least it has a certain style. But Marcello’s fortunes proceed along a tedious line of demoralization. Fellini has failed to make Rubini enough of an Everyman to make the descent urgent, the predicament trenchant. The final orgy, ending at a weary dawn, presses a point we long since have grasped, and the beached monster near the end of the film—shot in extreme closeup so that we never can quite make out its shape or contours—seems more literary than cinematic, a device that may have washed in, to die, from Marcello’s unfinished novel. In another context, I opine that the open-eyed hulk is the carcass of Italian neorealism, and of course I’m right; but any other guess must be accounted equally correct, because the fact of the matter is that this faux-symbol of Fellini’s could mean anything. (Or nothing—which amounts to the same thing.) Earlier, Marcello had gone to the country in search of the seclusion that might free him to write his book; I suppose the dead whatever-it-is, washed on shore from the sea of illimitable possibility, signals the death of Marcello’s serious aspirations, or perhaps of his capacity to pursue these aspirations. A young man, he is already finished: a bleak index of the condition of postwar, “successful” Italy in the filmmaker’s eyes. In the country, Marcello had encountered a girl to whom he had confided his aspiration. At the end of the film he sees her again (or is this another false vision?) across the beach, but he can’t understand her even as she pantomimes his hitting typewriter keys to finish his novel. He shrugs and turns away, and so do we, scarcely touched, let alone devastated as Fellini intended.

La dolce vita: the title is ironic.

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