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La Dolce Vita artwork by Mr G

La Dolce Vita

La Dolce Vita artwork by Mr G

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Director: Federico Fellini / ScreenplayFellini & Ennio Flaiano / Editing: Leo Catozzo / DP: Otello Martelli / Music: Nino Rota

Cast: Marcello Mastroianni / Anita Ekberg / Anouk Aimée / Yvonne Furneaux / Magali Noël / Alain Cuny / Annibale Ninchi / Valeria Ciangottini / Riccardo Garrone / Alain Dijon / Nico / Lex Barker  

Year: 1960

 

‘I’ve been wrong about everything. We all have…’

 


F
rom the extraordinary opening shot, as a pair of helicopters descend from the heavens in silence, before Fellini fades-in their rotor noise, I knew I was in for a treat; especially as one of those choppers carries a large statue of Christ, dangling from a rope. The reason for this miraculous image is never explained and nor does it need to be…

Instead, Fellini is content just to show these – and other – startling images and leave their explanation to our imaginations. So, we track their progress as Christ’s shadow passes over ruins from Ancient Rome, then over endless, anonymous apartment blocks: the ruins-to-come. At one point, a pilot spots a gaggle of sunbathing beauties on a rooftop and descends for a better look: and who should be aboard, but Marcello Mastroianni? Il Maestro’s muse and counterpoint, casually leans-out to mime that he phone the girls. Only in Italy

The picture that then unfolds doesn’t disappoint. One of Cinema’s greatest Directors at the peak of his powers, La Dolce Vita (‘The Sweet Life’) might very well be Fellini’s masterpiece.

GlassesIn a nutshell, the versatile Mastroianni plays Marcello, a gossip columnist with nobler aspirations. He yearns for something higher – a life spent writing literature or poetry – but he feels hemmed-in by a life of compromise, in a social circle populated by the same old jaded faces. The film will follow the next seven days of his life, as the walls of that compromise begin closing-in…

For now, let’s return to that bravura opening. If we take the view that nothing in a Fellini picture is there by accident, then we should consider the imagery on-screen. 

In the first section of his ‘Divine Comedy’, Dante Alighieri wrote about the ‘Nine Circles of Hell’ down which sinners would fall, before reaching their allotted level. My first conclusion therefore, was that Fellini was setting Marcello up as a ‘Fallen Angel’: he descends from a higher, noble plane to something more hidebound and constrictive over the seven days. In the process, Marcello becomes increasingly detached from his noble aims until he reaches a point of no-return. It might explain the initial lack of engine noise in the helicopters: a ‘Chariot of the Gods’ only acquires form as it approaches land. Also, Marcello’s the only crew member seen thereafter, as if he’s the one left behind… As if that wasn’t enough, they’re also carrying a sacred idol – a statue of Christ, no less – towards the Vatican itself. To witness the adoration of the crowds below, you’d think they’d just witnessed a miracle (more of that later). 

Or am I just ‘over-thinking’ things? Let’s see…

GlassesTo cap his first day on Earth as one of the fallen, Marcello visits a nightclub in which a trio of Balinese dancers are wailing a lament, as they ‘entertain’ the bemused patrons; perhaps they know something we don’t? But Marcello’s not here to enjoy himself, but to work: as a gossip columnist. He’s got a little routine going with a Paparazzo (incidentally, Fellini coined the term for celebrity photographers who flock like Sparrows). If he spots someone entertaining a person other than their wife or husband, he has the snapper take their photo; a routine that leads to one of the regulars calling him ‘a naughty boy’; not that Marcello seems at all concerned.

Enter: Maddalena (the smoky, enigmatic Anouk Aimée); a beautiful heiress hiding a nasty bruise under her shades. Marcello volunteers to take her home, yet it’s Maddalena, not Marcello, who steers her vast American convertible through tight Roman streets and ends-up at a quiet plaza. The first meaningful exchange in the film, has Maddalena stating that she has ‘too much money’ and Marcello ‘too little’. She wants to ‘run away and never meet anyone new again’, in an admission of jaded ennui that must’ve shocked a domestic audience still labouring to emerge from Italy’s post-war economic collapse. For all her privilege then, Maddalena has realised that having too much, gives nothing back in return…

At this point, a prostitute enters the scene. AnneMarie’s had a quiet night, but Maddalena’s bored listlessness needs an outlet, so she offers to drive the girl home, much to Marcello’s detached amusement. As they drive, Marcello asks AnneMarie ‘How’s it going?’ and receives the reply ‘Same as always’ which suggests that, despite her position at the opposite end of the social spectrum to her unlikely chauffeur, their lives are equally predictable and humdrum. They reach AnneMarie’s squalid basement flat and discover it’s flooded – and not for the first time, given a ready stack of planks that AnneMarie lays down to keep everyone’s feet dry. While Maddalena & Marcello head for her bedroom (that’s also damp) AnneMarie makes coffee – the pretext on which Maddalena invited herself in the first place. 

Some commentators suggest that a Ménage-á-trois then occurs off-screen, an opinion front-loaded by an earlier comment from Maddalena over whether Marcello would ever sleep with someone like AnneMarie, but I disagree. Realising what’s going on, AnneMarie tells them she’ll leave the drinks outside their door before taking a perch on the (dry) stairs. She just wants to sleep and the fee she receives next morning, is payment for her room and nothing more… Unless you know different?

Thus endeth the First Day and Marcello’s first Deadly Sin: Lust. 

GlassesThat’s when it hit me: I might’ve begun with the notion that the film was an exploration of a Fallen’s descent through Hell, but with the Jury’s permission I’d like to enter a different plea: that Marcello will actually experience the Seven Deadly Sins throughout the picture, with Lust being the first. Let’s see how things pans-out…   

The Second Day begins with Marcello driving his little Triumph TR3 roadster back to his flat, in a block not dissimilar to that which he flew over the day before.

Waiting for him, in a flat that’s empty and bare of everything, save a bed and the trappings of a DIY project long-abandoned, is Emma, his fianceé. She’s curled up in the hallway, having OD’d on some pills; burnt-up from jealousy at Marcello’s philandering. Now remorseful, Marcello drives her to hospital (that looks like the re-dressed basement of a multi-storey carpark). Not that he can stay long, as his work calls him away: he’d rather chase gossip for his column, than comfort his fiancé whom he disparages to all who’ll listen, as ‘Crazy!’. Trouble is, Emma represents ‘the real world’ and it’s somewhere Marcello doesn’t want to acknowledge; after all, he’s ignored their flat – their home – for that same reason. He’s running away from what he can’t understand…

And what of the assignment that’s called him away? It begins at Rome’s airport, where he’s to cover the arrival of a ‘famous Hollywood star’ – Sylvia – played with an iconic flourish by Anita Ekberg. Back in 1960, they did things a little differently at airports, particularly in Italy, if the unschooled gaggle of press & paparazzi swarming over the aircraft steps before its cabin door had even opened, is any guide. Then there’s the producer of the movie she’s to make (at Cinecittá, no less), who’s bustling up to the plane, armed with a bouquet and a couple of chefs, brandishing their wares, prompting the immortal line, ‘Shall we give her the flowers or the pizza first?’ 

As Sylvia is escorted to customs, what does Marcello do? Why, chat-up the stewardesses, naturally…

Later, in the Producer’s hotel suite, Sylvia holds an informal press-call, but Marcello ignores proceedings; preferring to sit in the corner and check-in with Emma, who’s at least now awake but unable to say why she did it. She tries emotional blackmail to lure Marcello home, but fails. After all, their flat is empty, there’s nothing to eat and its only occupant just tried to commit suicide: what’s there for someone like Marcello? The tragedy, is that he hasn’t yet reached the point of telling Emma that he wants out for good; instead, I think he’s hoping that his mere absence will do the job for him…

That afternoon, Sylvia is traipsing up to the highest point of the Basilica in St. Peter’s and is being trailed by a couple of snappers, her assistant and Marcello. As the unrelenting climb proceeds, all-but Marcello fall behind the indomitable Sylvia, leaving him the only one to make it to the top with her. Now on a balcony, she removes his shades to get a better look at him and at that moment, a gust of wind carries her bonnet away: a development that leads her simply to laugh; a move that reveals more of Fellini’s purpose.

You see, thus far Marcello’s encountered the rich, listless and ennui-ridden Maddalena, poor, oppressed AnneMarie and brittle, deluded & jealous Emma. Now here’s Sylvia: a true free-spirit and a breath of fresh air, who’s threatening to capsize his world: and he knows it. Knows it, but can’t help himself!

GlassesGiven the enervated circles inhabited by Marcello, it’s no surprise that the day ends in another odd place: a jazz club in an ancient basement or mausoleum of some kind. He’s dancing cheek-to-cheek with Sylvia, as the rest of her party and other clubbers look on, yet neither of them know the other’s language, so while Sylvia’s content to hum along to the band, Marcello’s warbling in her ear, about how he thinks she’s Eve – the First Woman – come to Earth, etc. I laughed at such cheesiness BUT, if Marcello IS Fallen, then he’d recognise a fellow sinner. Wouldn’t he?

The joke’s soon on him, however, as their intimate rhythms are interrupted with the arrival of another actor whom Sylvie knows. With his tight ginger curls and beard, Frankie Stout (Alain Dijon) looks like a de-horned Satyr: which is probably deliberate, given how he disrupts Marcello’s plans desires. Not that Stout is alone in putting the dampers on, as Sylvia’s own fiancé Robert (Lex Barker) is sat at her table, sketching other guests whilst keeping one eye on her and the other on his vodka: Rob’s seen it ALL before… At Frankie’s urging, the band now break into a Rock ‘n Roll number, that prompts Sylvia to lead the revellers on a tour of the space, in a true bacchanal. Sylvia IS sex. Youth. The expression of energy for its own sake and it’s no surprise that the whole room, Robert excepted, is in awe of her.

Just as he did the night before, Marcello gets to escort a lady out of a club. This time, it’s Sylvia herself, as a result of a spat with a drunken, jealous Robert. Unlike Maddalena, Sylvia lacks a car, so Marcello plonks her in his TR3 and they end up at the famous Trevi Fountain. Here – and despite wearing a highly-engineered strapless ballgown – Sylvia indulges in a sensuous bath-for-the-ages, under a plume of cascading water and beckons Marcello to join her. He takes his time deciding but eventually relents, muttering to himself ‘I’ve been wrong about everything. We all have’. Sylvia goes further and anoints Marcello’s head with the water, as if cleansing him of his sins. As if to sanctify Marcello’s moment of clarity, Fellini drops the sound once more, only to reveal it’s now daybreak; a time-shift that breaks the spell and catches our would-be-lovers by surprise…  

It’s such a memorable, iconic scene that it helped switch Fellini’s career – and reputation – into overdrive, as well as selling a million postcards & posters and made a starry destination out of the fountain (as if it needed the publicity). So what does the sequence represent? I think it advocates anarchy and free-thought over repression; sensuality over superficiality: no wonder that Marcello’s blindsided by it all. He’s realised that he’s been wrong about life and how to live in this world. He’s witnessed someone living up to their true self and he’s beginning to see that he either won’t – or can’t – do likewise. 

Marcello has a job he evidently hates, yet it HAS given him access to this true spirit; the most alive person he might ever have met. Everyone in his world are dull and boring. There’s no joie-de-vivre anywhere. Marcello has always believed – if not hoped – that there was something better out there and now he’s seen it with his own eyes. ‘I’ve been wrong about everything’? Too true, too true! 

The day’s lesson-in-sin? When Marcello returns Sylvia to the hotel, Robert’s waiting for her. He’s sleeping off the booze in his convertible, parked outside. Paparazzi are taking candid snaps of Robert, but on seeing his Fianceé arrive, they rouse him to confront Sylvia. He strikes her, despite protestations of her innocence. Next, he lashes-out at Marcello who, notably, fails to defend himself; the whole sordid business captured on-film by the very Paparazzi with whom Marcello has to work day-in, day-out. Looking at that entire sequence, I’d say it’s an exploration of Pride, both wounded and lost. 

GlassesWith the constant intrusion into the lives of ‘people of interest’ by the paparazzi, I think Fellini’s also doing a couple of other things. First, by never giving them dialogue or allowing them any meaningful interaction with their subjects, he’s relegating them to the role of a ‘Greek Chorus’, albeit one armed with a bevy of cameras, to both document and witness the destruction of an entire class that they themselves are part-responsible for… I also think that it’s his necessary association with them, through his job, that torments Marcello. After all, he wants to rise above the herd, and revert to his elevated position amongst the Gods from whom he’s fallen. Yet as long as he has to associate with the paparazzi, he’ll never be free, as by extension, he’s one of them 

As Marcello’s week plays-out, he witnesses Greed at first-hand, in the fallout from a religious visitation. The circumstances have been quickly ridiculed by a priest, but the perpetrators and the local community are quick to capitalise on the gullibility and desperation of the locals; such cynical exploitation covered in another of Fellini’s darker works, Il Bidone. 

He also experiences Envy, on meeting a casual friend – Steiner – who appears to have it all: creative, sparky friends, a beautiful home, wife and two adorably precocious children. Steiner embodies all that Marcello yearns to be; he even promises to introduce our hero ‘to a publisher’. So you can imagine how Marcello must feel a few days later, to learn – and see in-person – that Steiner shot both his children dead, then blew out his own brains, while his wife – their mother – was out shopping… Yet ‘imagining’ Marcello’s reaction is all we’re allowed, as Fellini is content merely to show the facts and leave the rest to our imaginations. 

I can understand how this scant treatment of an event of such magnitude will leave some observers frustrated, but this is Fellini’s world, not an episode of CSI… He doesn’t make films that deal in the nitty-gritty of reality or procedure and to expect that of him is to miss the point. Fellini’s cinema is about the experience of living, in all its forms. He knows, at a root level, that life is nothing but a cosmic joke and it’s how we respond to that realisation, that determines the path of our existence. He uses his imagination to find a way of illustrating these deeper truths and in so doing, shines a light on aspects of the human condition.     

GlassesI suppose the Wrath comes when, having finally tired of Emma, Marcello has a spiteful, immature row with her whilst out at night, on a lonely country road. He kicks her out of the car, only to return at-dawn, to the same spot, where he guessed – correctly – she’d be waiting for him. He knows Emma’s not exactly the self-starting type: after all, there’s NOTHING preventing her from making a start on the flat’s decoration, other than her own hang-ups! The fact he returns to her, despite an initial impulse to set his own path, is a major mis-step, being fair to neither party. It’s as though he’s settling for Emma, from a lack of courage to pursue something better…

Gluttony? Marcello’s visited unexpectedly by his father. The purpose for the trip isn’t really explained, but his Dad’s easily led-astray by the son made in his own image… Trouble is, Papa represents Marcello as he might (probably WILL) turn out and for a man of that age, to indulge in appetites better suited to a younger man will, in Fellini’s world at least, lead to err, complications. His hunger for life – his unchecked consumption of the good life – can only end one way. At least Papa has the good sense to depart the scene on the first train outta Rome, rather than embarrass either himself or his son who, let’s face it, has had enough of that already this week…

And Sloth? I’ve thought this one over at-length and offer this, in-conclusion. At some point during the week, Marcello takes himself off to a beach on the Adriatic coast, to an empty outdoor café on whose terrace he’s trying to type: without much success, given its young waitress – Paola – is setting-up the tables for lunch and listening to the jukebox. Against the hubbub, Marcello can’t focus, so he instead considers this open-faced, innocent girl with an almost sentimental tenderness. He asks to see her profile. She obliges, reminding him of the kind of girls he knew growing up. He feels wistful. At first, I thought he was going to roll-out his tired old philandery; perhaps the reason he doesn’t, is that he realises his charms wouldn’t work on her. It’s as if her angelic purity is too precious to be sullied by someone as debased as Marcello has become: and he knows it. 

Later, at the end of the film, he meets her again, by chance. She’s at the beach, alone and on the far side of a stream’s gully. She shouts to him, then mimes a question as if beckoning Marcello to join her, but Marcello is with a group of his world-weary ‘friends’ and can’t bring himself to take a chance on this girl, so he pretends not to hear or understand her and walks away with an apologetic wave of his hand. I think it’s no coincidence that this plays like a neat reversal of the opening shot, when he mimed to the girls from the helicopter, but in waving his hand to Paola, who’s he apologising to if not himself? In this reading of the scene, Paola represents redemption for Marcello; someone who can give him precisely what he needs. Yet, in Fellini’s vision, he’s on the far side of the ‘River Styx’ and out-of-reach. Marcello’s now lost – too directionless, too Slothful – to rouse himself from his ‘dead-man-walking’ persona and strike-out for something better. To Marcello, the last person who did that – who pursued his talent, rather than money – was Steiner and look what happened to him…

Thus, Marcello finds himself beyond redemption at the lowest point of Hell: a place on Earth in which he’s lost hope of ever leaving for better things and what could be worse than that?

GlassesAt a smidge under three hours long, Dolce Vita was the longest feature made by Fellini to that point. It remains a standout in World Cinema, not just for its idiosyncratic casting, often-dazzling cinematography by Otello Martello and unpredictable script & story, but because of its ambition!

Because of what it wants to say, about the human condition as Fellini understood it to be; the whole Cosmic Joke thing…

Naturally, the film’s hotchpotch of scenarios, allows for a myriad of different interpretations, each one as valid as the next. Every review I’ve read about the film, carries the writer’s own baggage and, chances are, your experience might be very different from mine. 

With films as textured and as rich as this, we all end up seeing the film we want to see…

Let me put it this way: some reviewers dismiss the picture as being ‘a boring movie about boring people doing boring things’ and, on one level, it’s hard to disagree! Then there are the comparisons with the notion of Fin De Siècle; the idea that, as a society reaches its end, its decadent, morally bankrupted citizenry will degenerate along predictable lines before inevitable renewal into a new form; Fellini’s bourgeoisie represent humanity’s end-of-the-pier-show. 

Others believe that Fellini could never escape his provincial roots so, when mounting a production such as La Dolce Vita, he could only ever be superficially critical of Rome and its denizens because, despite their shortcomings, they remained superior to his rural homeland; he was fatally blinded to Rome’s faults. Again, I think there’s merit in the argument BUT if you look at the film – really think about what Fellini has conjured here – there’s a chance that, like me, you’ll see past all its minor quibbles and come to see it as the masterpiece it is. 

GlassesYes, it stirred-up controversy in some regions on its release (e.g. Spain refused to screen it until 1981!) but our outlooks are radically different in many ways to those of 1960; we’re more liberal and accepting of views running counter to our own, so can see the film largely unburdened by prejudice.

In the end, Fellini is a master of vaguely expressed allegory, employing an array of characterful players with all the enthusiasm of a carnival barker. He weaves an ever-shifting, often-imprecise narrative thread thanks to his collaborative, improvisational style as a Director, in the same way as Mike Leigh, for example (but imagine how bleak La Dolce Vita might’ve been in Leigh’s hands?). I think Fellini knows all about bleakness, having grown up under Mussolini’s rule and Italy’s disastrous role in WW2, but he’s unapologetic in under-cutting himself with the bizarre and the downright weird; such confidence in execution deserves the plaudits even if, sometimes, he pulls back the curtains too far.

Hell on Earth? For 175 minutes, I was in Paradise.

I don’t believe in your aggressive, clingy, motherly kind of love!

LA DOLCE VITA  Triple Word / Score: DAZZLING / BRAVURA / SPONTANEOUS / TEN

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