By Mel Cartagena
La Dolce Vita – 1960 – Federico Fellini
The first image we see is a massive statue of Christ being hauled via helicopter over Roman landmarks, to be set atop St. Peter’s Cathedral. On the way there Marcello (Mastroianni) is distracted by a trio of girls sunbathing on the rooftop of a modern apartment building. He makes miming motions to them of writing down their phone numbers, but the noise and confusion get in the way of communications. That night Marcello is on the Via Veneto, scoping out the scandals among the fringe celebrities of Rome, collecting fodder for his gossip column (this is the movie that introduced the world to the word Paparazzo.)
In the opening scenes of what becomes a sprawling visual feast, Fellini shows us the scope and brio of La Dolce Vita. From the highest, holiest towers to the lowest, seediest night clubs, over the course of seven nights and seven dawns, Marcello will scour the heights and depths of Rome for the emotional center he’s missing, and he’ll always come up empty at dawn as a result of communications breakdown.
The sweet irony of La Dolce Vita is that a film that packs so much zest and energy in juxtaposing decadence and religious faith has at its core the most passive of protagonists. Marcello is a shell of a man, a Pinocchio waiting for his Blue Fairy to rouse him to life. He is a puppet being led in one direction by his spiritual ache, in another by his desires. Marcello covers the arrival of Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), an American actress, to Rome. He follows her to the top of St. Peter’s, down into the night clubs, through the side streets of Rome, desperately trying to keep up with her ever-changing whims, including wading knee-deep into the waters of the Trevi Fountain, only to have the spell broken when the fountain waters stop running. Another exhausted dawn has come up, and The Woman, the ideal he hopes will fill his void, failed to materialize in the Barbie doll-like simplicity of Sylvia. Lacking in moral direction, Marcello will always be at the mercy of Rome, the mistress that seduces and punishes, Marcellos’ private femme fatale. Before that Marcello meets up with Maddalena (Anouk Aimee), a promiscuous and wealthy high-society beauty. Does Marcello think he’ll find his redemption by saving her? We never know, since he follows her around Rome with the same fascination that he’ll follow Sylvia with. He seems enraptured with her waif-like weariness, the mystery she creates by wearing shades at night, and indoors (to cover a black eye.) They drive around Rome, pick up a prostitute and drive back to her subterranean apartment. Maddalena talks, he listens, they lounge around the prostitute’s bed. Not even the prostitute knows what to make of this protracted verbal foreplay. (She just wants to get on with business or be rewarded for her time, making her one of the few sensible people in the film.) Another dawn comes up, and money changes hands, but whatever Marcello was hoping for hasn’t happened. Marcello is the world-weary private eye, a Philip Marlowe-like shamus flat footing it through Rome, searching for the virgin that doesn’t exist, a private dick either unwilling or unable to look in the hardest place of all, inside.
Instead he travels to the countryside to cover the alleged sighting of the Virgin, and again he is led on a wild chase by a woman as the children see the Virgin, first over here, then over there. Anywhere they look, apparently, the same way the devout see the Virgin Mary in a storefront glass, or a pancake. Marcello chases after the children, being chased in turn by the lame and the blind, leading a parade of hopefuls for The Woman that can heal their private pains. And another dawn comes up, and Marcello leaves, his squint getting deeper, his desperation greater. Rome may be superficially pious and spiritually bankrupt, but it’s capable of embracing both Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of itself. The ones caught at either end of this high-low emotional divide will always be in internal turmoil, like Steiner (Alain Cuny.) When we first see him, he embodies everything Marcello wants (thinks he wants.) Steiner sits in his high chair, surrounded by books of art, presiding over a gaggle of poets and philosophers with fatherly benevolence, with beautiful, well-mannered children, and a lovely, good-tempered wife. Peace radiates from this home, so much so that after visiting Steiner Marcello goes to the country with his typewriter to work on that novel he’s been putting off.
The next time we see Steiner, well, we don’t even see him. We hear from the police that Steiner shot his wife and children before turning the gun on itself. We don’t need to see the carnage. To know that such assured serenity hid an existential angst even greater than Marcello’s is shocking enough to drive Marcello into a final, frenzied, desperate orgy of partying. And at dawn Marcello and his cohorts trudge out of the beach house, physically spent and emotionally depleted. The waitress from Umbria makes typing motions across the way at Marcello, but he can’t understand her, and turns away. We’ve come full circle, and Marcello is now permanently one with the aging playboys and the second-rate movie stars and fading aristocrats he writes about. Marcello’s indecision caused Rome to decide for him. His sentence is the sweet life, and like passive man that he is, he accepts it.