Friday, May 30, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: La Dolce Vita (1960)
Director: Federico Fellini
Starring: Marcello Mastioianni, Anouk Aimée, Anita Eckberg
La Dolce Vita is a story of contrast and symmetry – day and night, real and fake, lust and impotence – in the life of a tabloid journalist in Rome. Nearly fifty years after its release, it remains one of the most vibrant and lively of films, and also one of the most philosophically pensive. To spend time with Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is to ask whether the sweet life is ever really attainable or only just another corrupted illusion.
The film follows Marcello, who is at a crossroads in his life. What he has no longer satisfies him, what he wants he finds doesn’t really exist… or at least not in the idealized way he had conceptualized it. He’s a journalist by trade and wants to become a serious writer but most of his time in the film is spent on one amorous adventure or another. There are three women in his life: Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), his girlfriend who bears the brunt of his anger and frustration as she attempts to domesticate and tie him down; Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a movie star who drifts briefly into his life and then out again but captures his imagination; and Maddelena (the fabulous Anouk Aimée), a friend with whom he has perhaps the best chance of a successful relationship if only they weren’t both so passive and indifferent.
The genius of La Dolce Vita isn’t in its plot per say (it’s the kind of film where you could make the argument that “nothing” happens because even though things do happen, what’s important is what doesn’t happen), but in its structure. It’s a picaresque tale which follows Marcello from one adventure to another, his presence seemingly the only thing which connects them, but it’s so finitely structured that more connections become apparent when you actually look at the way the narrative is sewn together. The “episodes” usually begin at night and end at dawn and begin with the promise of something only to end with the disappointment of failure. Throughout the film Marcello is seeking something and finding that the source he’s seeking it from is somehow corrupted. For example, in Steiner (Alain Cuny) he sees someone to emulate. He’s a writer who seems to have the perfect life, a fine balance of work and family, of philosophy and love. Later when he learns that Steiner has killed himself and his children, he discovers that what he projected onto him is false. Marcello’s problem is twofold. First, he tries to make things that are “perfect” also be real. The opening and closing of the film foreground this through two religious symbols, the first being the statue of Jesus which flies through Rome via helicopter, the second being a fish that is dragged from the sea. One is beautiful but fake, the other is ugly but real, and both scenes feature a miscommunication between Marcello and a woman wherein she tries to tell him something but he doesn’t understand. As long as he continues to seek flawless perfection and dismiss the things which are ugly/real, he never will understand and the disconnect will forever remain.
Secondly, Marcello thinks that “perfection” can come without effort. He thinks that Steiner’s life just is “good,” not that he’s had to make it so. As protagonists go, Marcello is an incredibly passive one. He seeks things out, yes, but he’s never active enough to hold on to anything or move the plot to the next logical step. He has many romantic entanglements, for example, but at no point in the film can you ever really be sure that he’s had sex with any of these women. Even when he spends the night with Maddelena you can’t really be certain that they didn’t sleep together in only the most literal sense because it makes more sense that they wouldn’t have had sex given the way the film is structured around the promise which comes with nightfall, and the disappointment which greets the morning.
For all its symbolism and philosophy, La Dolce Vita is also a film that can be enjoyed simply for its entertainment value. There are many sequences that will stay with you long after you’ve see it: the famous scene between Marcello and Sylvia at the Trevi Fountain, the crowd that follows the children who claim to be able to see the Virgin Mary, the final party scene which devolves into an orgy of surrealism (if not actually sex). The scene that has stayed most vividly with me, however, is a scene at another party, when Marcello sits alone in a room and Maddelena speaks to him through a fountain. Marcello responds but Maddelena doesn’t hear him; she’s already engaged in an embrace with another man. It’s another miscommunication, another failure to launch for Marcello. It’s the story of his sweet life.