La Dolce Vita (1960)

Directed by Frederico Fellini

Sometimes you might think Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain is the entire film of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It’s the image best recalled in the popular mind (despite the movie’s famous opening), and about the only image you’ll find of the movie if you go looking for pictures on the Internet.

But it’s really just one of numerous sequences in Fellini’s famous episodic film. (The scene is overtly referred to and a key point in 2003’s Under a Tuscan Sun — a movie not anything like La Dolce Vita.)

The movie is often seen as the pivotal point in Fellini’s career, the end of his neo-realist earlier movies and the jumping off place for his later, circus-like and absurdist films. And it is. It certainly has a greater sense of surface coherency than the more complex and fabulist 8 1/2.

Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini driving partiers in La Dolce Vita.

But you can see the beginnings of where Fellini was headed in the absence of a linear structure. In La Dolce Vita the structure is episodic and those episodes relate in the sense of variations on a theme but not necessarily in the sense of A follows B follows C.

The episodes relate in that they show us Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) in a variety of situations and being the man he is within them, a lost and bored and impotent modern man whose life lacks direction or meaning. (He senses a direction – that of art – but he is too weak and morally drained to pursue this with any vigor.)

Marcello is a gossip monger, a man who reports on society’s hedonistic lifestyle (la dolce vita – the sweet life). He’s a friend of the paparazzi. (He is repulsed by them but at the same time is one of them. This becomes a reflection of his own self-loathing.)

The movie is essentially a satire of modern life, and rather a depressing one at that. Perhaps one of the reasons the episodic structure lacks a feeling of linear progression is because the character, Marcello, doesn’t progress.

Anita Ekberg as Sylvia famously strolls in a fountain.

In the traditional hero’s journey he learns as he goes along. The hero gets stronger and eventually triumphs when his evolution peaks. But Marcello learns nothing. He doesn’t get stronger. He simply flounders and so there is no progression.

(Compare this to 8 1/2 where the central character, again played by Marcello Mastroianni, begins in a similar place but, in the end, is somewhere else altogether.)

It’s interesting to see how Fellini, in a kind of ironic way, places structure within his structureless plot. While the relationship of the episodes seems absent, or at least arbitrary, the episodes themselves are all similarly structured. They begin in day, generally the early evening, move into the night then, when the episode reaches some kind of resolution, wind down at dawn.

Again, within a traditional hero’s tale the hero would come out of each of these with something – new knowledge, a weapon, something. But Marcello comes away with nothing.

A wistful Anouk Aimée as Maddalena.

Throughout the movie, we’re appalled along with Marcello by the vacuity of the people he moves with and reports on. We agree with his sense that these are shallow, empty lives devoid of meaning. Fellini’s bite is in the fact that Marcello is us.

He’s the everyman character of the film, and as we identify with him and the movie winds up we see he’s incapable of learning anything.

He has lost his one saving quality, his yearning for art.

He is simply absorbed by the hedonistic “sweet life” and is doomed to a life of despising himself, and those around him, without ever having the strength to change.

Fellini bookends his movie with similar scenes. In the opening, Marcello tries to communicate with the bikini wearing women on the rooftop but cannot. And the end, he tries to communicate with the pretty young girl he met when he was trying to seriously write but he cannot.

Marcello is essentially an artist and these scenes indicate his inability to communicate which, within the context of art, is impotence of the most profound sort. And this again makes La Dolce Vita a wonderful companion film and contrast to Fellini’s masterpiece, 8 1/2.

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