The Critical Mockery of Fellini's 'La Dolce Vita'

My favorite movie by Federico Fellini is and always will be Eight and a Half, and sometimes after certain particularly strong viewings, I am almost tempted to name it my all-time favorite; nothing comes close to portraying the art life as Fellini’s opus, and nothing does it more surrealistically, beautifully and elegantly, and it is in my opinion (and for many others), one of the greatest films ever made. His previous film is a very close second favorite. If Eight and a Half analyzes the creative process and all the struggles that naturally come with it, the 1960 La Dolce Vita is perhaps even wider in scope, and deals with more universal themes than those reserved for the intellectually gifted: love, happiness, morality, balance...La Dolce Vita discusses many important ideas in the most refined of ways, shot beautifully, scored brilliantly, and with generous amounts of glamour glued to even its most depressive segments; it is almost impossible to exaggerate the stature of this masterpiece, from being a worldwide success upon release, gaining claim as an emblem of world cinema, to influencing modern pop culture, most notably with the widely used term “Paparazzi”, Fellini’s film is incomparable.

The film stars the incredible Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini, a journalist and writer, drifting through nocturnal Rome in an episodic tale where he searches for love, happiness, and meaning, through encounters with different classes and sorts of people that range from intellectual circles and beautiful foreign actresses to reunions with his father and deals with he wanders the streets and parties of Rome, we are treated not only to a beautiful social commentary on the different ranks of its society, that are in the end more similar than different, but also to a thorough profile of the conflicted protagonist, torn apart between the life of a writer and the sacrifices it requires, and the simple home life and the shelter it offers, and the deadlier but easier alternative of the glamour of public life, “La Dolce Vita.”

Fellini’s films always have such strong openings and this is no exception. La Dolce Vita opens with a shot of a statue of Christ being flown over Rome with a helicopter, filmed mostly with low-angle shots that show pedestrians’ reactions to this curious sight, reactions that are surprisingly casual. Christ, symbolizing morality flows over a city which will be host to what one might call moral dubiousness, a gesture symbolizing not only His judgement, but also His abandonment. An aerial shot that is more diagnostic than establishing really, is followed by a scene set at the nightclub where much of the story takes place, and we are introduced to the character of Maddalena, played by the beautiful Anouk Aimee (who starred alongside Mastroianni in the aforementioned Eight and a Half), a rich, morally ambiguous heiress. Here, Fellini’s criticism (or simply portrayal, for a less specific reading) of high society begins; behind the glamour, the fancy clothes, the expensive parties, and the sports cars, there is a longing for something primitive that money can’t buy, there is a hollowness that no certain amount of allure can fill, a thirst that is momentarily quenched by simply making love in the rented humble home of a prostitute.

After this initial picture of the night life of Rome, Fellini opts to show us Marcello’s other alternative, the simple home life, depicted in its most pathetic and miserable. Returning home from his night with Maddalena, Marcello finds his fianc√©e on the verge of death after a suicide attempt. As he is taking her to the hospital, and afterwards as he lays next her bed kissing her hand, he swears his never-ending love and faithfulness, an oath made only under the extreme happenstance of a near-death event, something never to be replicated again under “normal” circumstances. Throughout the rest of the film, as his fianc√©e practically begs for his love, one he dubs as “smothering and maternal”, the home life she promises and symbolizes is viewed as a prison and a trap, safe but suffocating.

Perhaps the most iconic segment of the film is the one involving the Swedish actress Sylvia (portrayed by Anita Ekberg), who is in Rome to make a film, and along the way, charms everyone around her, including and especially Marcello. Otello Martelli’s cinematography throughout the entire picture is marvelous, but in this particular segment, it shines incredibly; shot in gorgeous black-and-white with rich shadows, plentiful lighting, and a voluptuous, alluring quality, Sylvia’s part of the film is as alluring as she is, and in it is the famous fountain scene. Containing all the qualities of a star and charming everyone around her to the point of madness, Sylvia’s true nature is missed by all the men chasing her, and her beauty deviates from her childlike wonder and free-spiritedness: while she is captivated with a cat she finds on the streets, Marcello can’t take his eyes off her, while she playfully howls back at the wolves, he is staring at her, and while she is under the water in the fountain asking him to listen, he just can’t, and after a while, really can’t listen.

The intellectual life he longs for is shattered before his eyes with a horrendous crime, the spirituality he wishes he had is torn apart with deceit and modernity, the loves he is offered are either all-controlling or unfaithfully free, the father he never knew is more interested in his world than in him, so he opts for the easy alternative of succumbing to public life with all its theatrics, moral ambiguousness, and sating but never fulfilling. In the end, Marcello and his party are on the beach and out comes a dead shark with its eyes staring into the blank, it’s been dead for days. Out of the vast ocean with all of its endless possibilities, the best they could get out was a dead fish. A sad ending but with a hopeful note, sure it’s not the best they could’ve gotten, but it’s still something, and maybe that’s enough, their life wasn’t always happy, but it was always sweet, always glamorous. The sarcastic title of the film and its criticism of the life it portrays can be seen throughout the whole three hours of the film, but in the end, it almost comes to terms with it.  

La Dolce Vita, even without an analytical approach, is still one of the most charming and glamorous films ever made. Martelli’s gorgeous cinematography, Nino Rota’s lively and resonating score, and an episodic tale that is as enchanting as it is melancholic make this one of the maestro’s greatest achievements.


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