La Dolce Vita (1960)
Directed by Federico Fellini
Like many a classic, Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita has become nearly impossible to experience apart from its legend. It is no longer a film but a "moment,d one of the great works from the golden age of European art cinema, often reduced to an overly familiar snapshot of post-war excess and modish oblivion.
Yet La Dolce Vita lives forever. Fellini may have set out to explore the outer delirium and inner rot among a subsection of pampered starlets, amoral gossip-hounds, pretentious socialites and funereal aristocrats at the peak of Italy's Economic Miracle and burgeoning gliteratti culture, but Vita is a universal fable, as universal as Dante's Inferno.
The three-hour picaresque stars Marcello Mastroianni as Dante/Virgil hybrid Marcello, a celebrity journalist navigating Rome's midnight bacchanals and orgies (with Walter Santesso as the original Paparazzo constantly in tow) in search of meaning. Each encounter is a fresh confrontation with the absurdities of modern hell. Frustrating infidelities—with Anouk Aimee's joyless heiress as well as Anita Ekberg's super-voluptuous symbol of womanhood—occur in haunted mansions and suddenly still public fountains; media frenzies germinate around false sightings of the Madonna; the one island of sanity amidst such moral chaos—Alain Cuny's petrified intellectual—commits an unspeakable act of self-destruction.
By the time of Vita Fellini had left Neorealism far behind to create his own unique brand of mythic humanism, but was still a feature film away from the kinetic expressionism and disorienting subjectivity that would mark 8 1/2 as the opening of a radical new artistic phase. Vita is therefore a transitional film, an apt designation considering Mastroianni's transitional character: a man too restless to renounce the cheap thrills of his empty occupation, yet too childlike to give up the superficial comforts of a romantic relationship (Yvonne Furneaux plays his long-suffering and ill-fitting maternal girlfriend) and ever-delayed creative aspirations.
Vita is thus at heart a melancholic elegy for male integrity that happens to take place during the age of Playboy and the international jet set. Fellini holds together its disparate tones (from eerie and otherworldly to bruised and unsentimental) with precise management of full-to-bursting widescreen compositions (his signature hairpin shifts in background to foreground action begin here) as well as a mind-meld director-actor bond with Mastroianni, who projects his character's elliptical decline into cynicism with a tense, vulnerable reserve.
And yet, can we still learn or experience anything new from Vita more than half a century after its controversial and celebrated release? Have its saturnine decadence and central moral concern merely become the stuff of immaculate photo stills? The film's opening shot—a helicopter transporting a statue of Christ over Rome—remains justly famous for its ironic collision of modern technological alacrity and ancient spiritual grandeur. Largely forgotten is that Marcello's first lines of dialogue remain unheard under the helicopter's din; attempting to pick up bikini-clad rooftop sunbathers, he gestures in vain. In the also justly famous final scene, Marcello stands on a shore after a particularly deflating all-nighter as a grotesque fish is pulled from the water. He responds in vain to a beautiful adolescent girl he recognizes from earlier in the film and who calls to him from across an inlet. But the roar of the sea drowns out their voices; Marcello can only pantomime his resignation in the face of this failed communication.
La Dolce Vita concerns the fight to make ourselves heard over the din of forces natural and artificial, self-generated and imposed. That Marcello loses the battle is our gain. His mutedly tragic journey—the journey of a soul extinguished before the body dies—is the last light by which we can see our way through a confused, mangled, but ultimately sweet life.
Opens June 3 at Film Forum