Written by Kris Tronerud
Italy, 1960. 115 min. Gray- Film, Pathe, Riama Film. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, Yvonne Furneaux, Alain Cuny; Music: Nino Rota; Cinematography: Otello Martelli; Produced by: Giuseppe Amato, Angelo Rizzoli; Written by: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli; Directed by: Federico Fellini
Okay, letâ€™s get it out of the way, right off the bat. I think La Dolce Vita is the greatest film ever madeâ€” in fact, a perfect film. A perfect film is one that has no missteps, no awkward moments, no bad performances, nothing to take us â€˜outâ€™ of the film; a film that flows seamlessly and of a single piece, sound and vision working as one, transporting us to the world of the filmmaker for the duration, and making that world a part of who we are for the rest of our lives. There arenâ€™t many of them: Vertigo, The Searchers, Jules and Jim, Blow- Up, The Rules of the Game come to mind. You probably have a nomination of your own. Let me tell you why I think La Dolce Vita is such a film. Or, rather, letâ€™s let one of the characters tell us.
Midway through LDV, Steiner, the doomed aesthete whose sudden and inexplicable fall from grace propels the tragic last third of the film, is telling Marcello (Mastroianni), the anguished, soul-searching gossip journalist/would-be novelist who â€˜tellsâ€™ the story of the film, why he loves his favourite painting. â€œEverything is bathed in a wistful light, yet painted with a precision and rigor that makes it almost tangible… You could say itâ€™s an art where nothing is coincidental…â€ It is, in fact a perfect description of Felliniâ€™s art. Every shot, its movement, its details, the movement of the actors in the shot, and the impeccable rhythm of their editing, is controlled by the directorâ€™s absolutely certain knowledge of how exactly to reproduce his vision for us on screen. Many of these felicities only come to light after multiple viewings, but we are simply swept away by a film that is positively musical in its rhythms and structure, the pace and emotional levels of each scene rising and falling wave-like, in â€˜movements.â€™ Like many of his films, LDV reflects Felliniâ€™s love of cabaret and the circus, and many scenes literally contain performances of some sort, but every scene in this symphony of a movie is, in a sense, a song, a â€˜numberâ€™ – a curtain rising to reveal a short, vivid meditation on yet another aspect of the human condition. If this sounds like an overstatement, itâ€™s not. LDV succeeds where so many â€˜artâ€™ films fail, tackling virtually all of the major life questions, (real vs. abstract, idealized love, art vs. commerce, corrupted religion vs. real spirituality, commitment, aging and death), yet in a way that never calls attention to itself: the symbolism is not leaden or obvious, rather it is woven masterfully into the fabric of the film (something that cannot be said of some of Felliniâ€™s later work).
The superb screenplay has its characters discuss the eternal verities in a way that springs naturally out of normal human conversation; at parties, nightclubs, in their quiet personal moments, and in a way that never announces an agenda or spells out conclusions. Indeed, Felliniâ€™s gift is so great that many single shots in LDV convey more human truth than other films in their entirety: the sight of Marcelloâ€™s aging father, after a night of ill-advised partying with Marcello, and an attempted dalliance with a nightclub dancer, sitting with his back to the camera, in the center of a spare room, bathed in the early morning light, speaking in the unnaturally calm and quiet voice of someone who has just peered over the abyss, tells all we will ever need to know about the terror of growing old, of knowing we can no longer behave as we did when we were young. There are many such indelible shots in LDV: Marcello and Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) quietly leaving the Trevi fountain as the water is shut off in the early morning, accompanied by Nino Rotaâ€™s melancholy theme; the rain that begins to fall at the end of the devastating â€˜Miracle of the Madonnaâ€™ sequence, as if God himself were crying at the perversion of his purpose; the fluttering of the curtains in the bedroom of Steinerâ€™s children – all conveying a wealth of emotional and spiritual information in a few perfectly played moments.
Much has been made of LDV‘s â€˜decadence,â€™ but it is, of course, a deeply spiritual film. Even the Catholic National Legion of Decency noted that, though â€˜dangerously themed,â€™ LDV was â€œanimated throughout by a moral spirit.â€ In fact, Fellini shows his hand in the first, majestic shot that begins the film: a helicopter is airlifting a statue of Jesus to St. Peterâ€™s. It passes by the ancient aqueducts to fly over the arid, colourless apartment developments in which many of the characters live, and, with St. Peterâ€™s dome framed in the distance, the shadow of Jesus passes over the blank wall of the apartment building. In a few stunning moments, we have passed (with a powerful spiritual symbol in tow) from ancient times into the â€˜presentâ€™, in which Fellini seems to feel that humanity is in deep, deep trouble. Marcello, who is unable to step out of his comfortable, hedonistic rut long enough to embrace the creativity and love of art dormant in him, and Steiner, who can, but is not comforted by them, are haunted by this central emptiness. â€œIâ€™m making a mistakeâ€¦ Weâ€™re all making a mistakeâ€¦â€ Marcello mutters, as he decides to stop being cynical for a moment and famously join Sylvia in the Trevi Fountain. â€œI am frightened by peace,â€ says Steiner as he caresses his children for the last time. â€œI fear it is only a shell, and that hell is hiding behind it.â€ The spiritual quest of these characters is also echoed in Marcelloâ€™s search for the perfect female (when he already has one who loves him with all her heart) as well as in the many ascents and descents in the film; the characters are always climbing; stairs, towers, hills, balconies, scaffolds, as if they will somehow get a better view of themselves and the world. While Fellini is openly disdainful of organized religion, he seems to be saying that a simple and organic spirituality lies below the surface in all of us, if we will only, like the mediums which appear in several of his greatest films, allow ourselves to hear it.
In the final scenes of LDV, as the partygoers from an empty and pathetic orgy to which Marcello has fled after Steinerâ€™s death sleepily file out onto a neighboring beach, they discover a grotesque dead sea creature in the surf, as if humanityâ€™s rejection of its natural innocence and nature had itself been washed up on the shore, its dead eyes accusing the assembled company. â€œItâ€¦insists on looking at us,â€says Marcello. Their spiritual deadness is reinforced by a thread of miscommunication that runs through the entire film. LDV was filmed as the Hercules and Spaghetti Western booms were just going into full swing, and the American and European expatriate actor/ hangers-on who populate the film are constantly shouting at each other in a multitude of languages, in a near constant state of miscomprehension. The film is, in fact, bookended by two eloquent scenes which cement this theme: Following the helicopter transporting the Christ statue at the filmâ€™s start, is another, carrying Marcello and his best friend and photographer Papparazzo (yes, thatâ€™s where the term â€˜Paparazziâ€™ came from) who are, for once, covering something besides a busty starlet cheating on her husband. Their attention is drawn by a group of women sunbathing on a roof, and they stop and hover over the women (shifting their attention, as the film often does, from the sacred to the profane). The women want to know where the statue is going, the men want the girlâ€™sâ€™ telephone numbers. They shout at each other over the engine noise, to no avail, and eventually Marcello and Paparazzo fly away.
And, in LDVâ€™s final immortal scene, as the revelers are staring at the beached sea creature, Marcello sees someone waving at him from across a small inlet. It is a young, beautiful and innocent young woman who works at a roadside cafe where Marcello has periodically tried, unsuccessfully, to work on his long neglected novel. She is beckoning him to come back to the cafe (she mimes a typewriter) and by extension, to spend time with her. At first, they shout over the crashing waves and Marcello cannot hear. But this time, the communication is finally received, and Marcello understands. He first shrugs nonchalantly, then, fully realizing what he is turning down, he winces for a fleeting, bitter second, waves her (and his future) away, and turns back to his companions. For all his longing for a higher purpose, he cannot take the step; he is too far gone. The girl smiles wistfully, and then, for a few electrifying seconds before the fade to black, looks straight at the audience. The ball is now in our court.
If all this sounds heavy, well, the subject matter often is, but the viewing experience is most definitely not. La Dolce Vita is sharp, funny, sexy, and so richly depicted in every frame, that we are entranced by one of the most compelling, fascinating and entertaining films ever made. Even the most ordinary scenes are gorgeously photographed in lush, razor-sharp black and white, and Fellini pulls some extraordinary performances, not only from the big names, but in unexpected places as well. Swedish sex bomb Anita Ekbergâ€™s entrance (from a plane ramp to an adoring crowd) seems to parody the very persona she was saddled with for most of her career, but here she is wonderfully vulnerable and warm as Sylvia, the â€˜Americanâ€™ movie star who turns out, beyond her impossibly voluptuous appearance, to be a whole lot deeper and wiser, than either we or Marcello expect. Rock fans will be surprised and amused by then-model Nico, who, as one of the more prominent partygoers, is daffy, funny, and completely removed from the more sullen image she was soon to adopt in The Velvet Underground. B-movie regular Yvonne Furneaux is tremendously affecting as Emma, Marcelloâ€™s long-suffering girlfriend, and French actor Alain Cuny gives the performance of his career as Steiner, whose Zen-like calm and love of great art hide a terrible, deadly dread of life and living. In every respect, La Dolce Vita is, finally, a riveting film experience, unique and unforgettable. If youâ€™ve already seen it, you already know what I mean; if this is your first time, you are experiencing a film to which you will return, every few years, for the rest of your life. It is, after all, a perfect movie.