An Appreciation – La Dolce Vita
There is a moment in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) that has remained fixed in my mind. It happens a little more than halfway through the film, where the protagonist has a tender scene with his father. This comes after the two of them had a random but short reunion. At first, the time the two have is a happy one, for they have not seen in each for quite some time, but as the father’s intentions become clear, we find that he has come to Rome to drink and flirt with women, instead of spending quality time with his son. As the night ends, with the father hung over and in a hurry to catch the next train home, the protagonist begs for him to stay. Suddenly, seeing that the desperate pleads to his father fall on deaf ears, the protagonist stops, looks at him, and simply says, “We never see each other.”
This single line has remained with me ever since I first watched this movie years ago. It encapsulates everything that the main character searches for within its story. Although he never says it out loud, the character of Marcello (played, effortlessly, by Marcello Mastroianni) is clearly lacking something in his life. He works as a gossip journalist, following and documenting the lives of movie stars, flamboyant personalities, and members of the upper class. His life is lived in the night, where the most colorful people go out to play. One would think that his experiences in the social fast lane would be a never-ending string of surprises, and in many ways, it is. But like the search for Charles Foster Kane’s elusive Rosebud, Marcello seeks and yearns for something more, something deeper than the shallow extravagance that is the subject of his articles.
The film comes as a major turning point in the career of its director. Federico Fellini is one of the most famous filmmakers to ever live, creating movies that both depict the Italy of his time and the creativity of his thoughts and passions. The movies prior to La Dolce Vita were centered on the neo-realist style of his contemporaries, depicting a world directly affected by World War II. These great movies include I vitelloni (1953), La Strada (1954), and Nights of Cabiria (1957). After 1960, his films became more experimental, influenced by his time in the circus as a youth. Films such as 8 ½ (1963), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and Amarcord (1973) show this more playful and free spirited side of Fellini, no longer held down by the restraints of neo-realism.
I mention this because La Dolce Vita is so unlike any of his other films, which would probably be the reason why it has affected me in such a way. The film is not self aware, it does not jump back and forth in time or display the inner thoughts of its characters. However, there is a type of other-worldliness to it that sets it apart from his other films. Many of the characters here seem bigger than life, the locations appear to be set in places where you wouldn’t quite expect them to be, everyone seems to move in a type of rhythm that is in sync with one another. Fellini was known to play music while he filmed his scenes, and we see that reflected almost subconsciously in the actors’ performances. They move in step with each other, they are all a part of the same song.
And it is the style of the film that helps make it so enchanting to watch. Although it is nearly three hours long, it has a way of luring us in to itself, and before we know it, we have watched the entire thing. The very structure of it allows for the unexpected. The movie does not have the basic three-arc structure with one major through-line connecting the beginning, middle, and end, it is much more ambitious than that. Instead, the film is composed episodically, with each different segment being very loosely connected with each other. There does seem to be a pattern that is repeated throughout the film; most of the segments take place late in to the night, where different personalities and situations surround Marcello, as he very coolly observes and participates. Then, the morning comes, the adventure is over, and Marcello moves on to his next story. All of these segments, however different, do have one common element, and it is Marcello, and his search for that deeper meaning to his life.
It seems to me that throughout the film, Marcello finds himself torn between the seductive meaninglessness of his work as a gossip journalist, and the much more difficult, yet rewarding, desire to be a serious writer. Marcello searches to find fulfillment, but keeps falling short from attaining it. He tried once and again to start writing a book, but repeatedly became distracted by the lavishness and sensationalism of his job. Fellini fills the movie with imagery that continuously shows this dilemma. Go no further than the opening shot of the movie, where a helicopter carries a statue of Jesus over the city. Yes, the image depicts an idea that is beautiful and has much meaning, but the statue itself is simply a carving, a fake and an illusion. It is repeated again where Marcello, following a hot story about two children who claim to be able to see the Madonna, watches as the two of them lead an almost hysterical group of followers on a wild goose chase back and forth around a field in the rain. Again, the idea is grand and full of meaning, but as the children run around, giggling as if they were playing a game, we come to find that any kind of real fulfillment is lost.
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