Some movies are best explained by telling you what they aren’t and by shooting down theories about what they mean. Federico Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA is one of these, and the following will mostly be embroidery on that point: The movie is best described as a series of provocative scenarios that don’t reduce well to a slug line or any kind of distillation. At least superficially, the film is about Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni), a tabloid journalist in Rome that we follow from party to bedroom to photo op in scenes that seem more or less complete in themselves, and only very lightly related by theme and plot. The tapestry of story, in other words, is only loosely woven here.
In a search to affix some kind of meaning to the procession of images and events, you might try to make hay out of one of the few recurring images and themes, but I will argue that none of them turn up as deeply significant. One likely target of that search is the paparazzi, who appear as one of the few running motifs in the movie that coined the term “paparazzo” (after the proper name of a photographer). The saddest moment of the film is probably when Marcello must tell a woman that her family is dead, and the swarm of paparazzi in that instance is almost evil.
Even so, this characterization is a sidelight in a sprawling, three-hour film, and the paparazzi and their presence are barely discussed. Even if their constant intrusions suggest a critique of Italian society, that critique is not decisively articulated and we don’t see their larger effect on the culture; we only read into them and their meaning at our own peril. That said, it’s telling that we never see the photos that the paparazzi produce, only the manipulative means by which they produce them, in a kind of inversion of the glamorizing process of image-creation. If Fellini’s portrayal of the paparazzi is an indictment, it doesn’t feel like an indictment of them so much as an examination of how newspapers and fame can be used to manufacture empty visions of the Good Life.
The movie has even less to say about two other themes that seem promising but don’t yield much meaning: religion on the one hand, and the beau monde of Rome on the other. It’s easy to read a lot into one scene that sees the poignant meeting of these two thematic strands. The rich, at play, are up until dawn prancing around an aristocratic family’s neglected villa, whose profound history has been reduced to their playground. Returning to the main house in the morning light, the party runs into the family matriarch on her way to mass, and she chides her son for his immaturity.
The scene could easily be seen as showing the unmoored spiritual state of the privileged. We might feel like the elder lady’s dismay is earned by a party that was too carefree, and we might say that religion is the cold water in the face of these wayward souls. However, this idea of religion as redemptive and corrective isn’t echoed in the rest of the movie. In an earlier episode, a major media circus is created around the tree where the Madonna appeared to two children, and religion in that sequence only seems to fuel hysteria.
In this way, it’s hard to see which aspect of religion is supposed to be most important when we take LA DOLCE VITA as a whole. Likewise, it’s not at all obvious that the movie is condemning the parties of the well-to-do. Steiner, Marcello’s apparent spiritual mentor, seems to be a man of great means, maybe on par with those obnoxious aristocrats at the villa. But his party is filled with witty aesthetes, and Steiner himself is obviously held in great esteem. Even if later it is suggested that Steiner does not live the Good Life after all, it isn’t at all implied that religion is the solution or that Steiner’s downfall was fatuous narcissism.
So, while it’s tempting to see as emblematic that early-morning scene of a man joining his mother for church after a night of partying, a more representative sample of the film is the famed opening scene — a statue of Christ being flown over Rome. Like much of the movie, it makes contemporary Roman life out to be a kind of circus, with modern technology and jet-setting lifestyles abutting the oldest traditions and imagery. Most importantly, Fellini does not seem to use the scene to comment on this so much as make the stark contrast salient.
It’s impossible (and probably not at all desirable anyway) to capture the film in a few words, but it’s necessary to mention that the foregoing — Fellini’s enthusiasm for provocation and incongruity — is in a way just the background for an intimate portrait of our Marcello. In contrast to the fount of possible meanings you could get out of the scenarios Marcello moves through, what we learn and see about the man seems like too little, though he’s only more fascinating for being a cipher. In the Trevi Fountain scene, where he follows the insouciant Anita Ekberg into the water, we don’t learn about Marcello directly but can infer his inner turmoil. In the face of her wild abandon, his pinched face and tentative movements suggest unease. He’d love to feel as free as she does, but he is held down by some inner shackles, maybe just the cultivated man’s sense of propriety, or maybe something darker. Mastroianni’s acting and the script don’t tell us, and it’s all the better for that.
That pinched look is elaborated on only a few times, as when Marcello loses composure in a bitter argument with his fiancé. His outburst gives us a brief view of a man deeply mistrustful of the possibility of love, a man whose twisted psyche is pained by comfort and joy. A similar idea is hinted at earlier, when Steiner warns him that “A more miserable life is better, believe me.” As wanted as it may be, there is great sadness and danger in the Good Life, it would seem.