“La Dolce Vita” - Federico Fellini (1960)

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) won the Palme d’Or (“Best Picture”) at the Cannes Film Festival and was his biggest hit with the public.  For American viewers, though, its popularity was probably due to its perception as a phantasmagoric parade of European decadence among the privileged classes.  But underlying and unifying the film’s episodic and histrionic extravagances is something more interesting – a philosophical quest for life’s ultimate fulfilment.  Of course, the search for life’s meaning can be said to lie in the background of almost all stories, but La Dolce Vita’s almost picaresque journey through the various quarters of Roman pleasure-seeking represents a beautifully artistic articulation of this quest.

The film was shot in Rome and set mostly along the famous Via Veneto boulevard with a huge cast of characters.  The most prominent roles among the many players are:

  • Marcello Rubini (played by Marcello Mastroianni),  an aspiring writer who currently toils as a tabloid journalist.
  • Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a hyper-glamorous Swedish-American movie star.
  • Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), a beautiful and extremely wealthy woman devoted to pleasure-seeking
  • Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), Marcello’s devoted girlfriend
  • Steiner (Alain Cuny), Marcello’s wealthy intellectual friend and role-model
  • Marcello’s father (Annibale Ninchi)
  • Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), a free-lance photojournalist and representative of the class of lower-class publicity hounds in modern urban life.  His character name became eponymous with an entire class of frantic, media-chasing mindlessness.
The story of the film comprises a sequence of expressionistic episodes, almost like symphonic movements, that follow Marcello’s search path towards . . . what? It’s not simply enlightenment that he seeks, but something more complete – that which we all seek, a life of fullness and total engagement. We can call it “love”, but it is almost inexpressible.

The genius of Fellini was his ability to choreograph cinematically these kinds of feelings by means of expressive characterizations and group interactions in dynamic, involving environments.  Each of the episodes represents a specific tangent of Marcello’s quest for fulfilment.  For the most part, a given episode involves an evening of increasing delirium that ends with the cold light of morning daylight.
1.  With Maddalena

The opening scenes feature the frenetic life of Marcello, the tabloid journalist, who frequents nightlife on the Via Veneto in search of celebrity scandals.  He is often accompanied by Paparazzo, who seeks to take candid shots of celebrities in distress.  At a nightclub, Marcello runs into an old friend, the beautiful and engaging Maddalena.  Maddalena is so rich that she is bored with all of Rome; but Marcello says he likes Rome, because it is a jungle in which he can conceal himself behind many different roles. To amuse themselves with a game, they go off and pick up a prostitute so that they can use her place to have their own sexual tryst.  These early sequences also introduce the viewer to Emma, Marcello’s clinging fiancé, who is literally suicidal whenever she suspects Marcello might stray.  Thus from the outset, one sees Marcello torn between two unsatisfactory choices: the lascivious Maddalena, who only offers momentary pleasures, and Emma, whose obsessive possessiveness is oppressive to him.

2.  Sylvia
In perhaps the most famous sequence of the film, the extravagantly buxom movie star Sylvia visits Rome and so, unsurprisingly, comes to the attention of Marcello and the other media hounds.  Marcello is immediately infatuated with the luscious beauty, but what he sees is only a voluptuous mirage, not the promise of a fulfilling relationship. 

3.  Emma and the Miracle Sighting

Another news event to be covered is the reported miraculous sighting of the Virgin Mary by two lower-class children, which has caused a frenzy on the part of the religiously-devoted Italian public. This is also a memorably staged scene – here of religious enthusiasm run rampant, and the tradition-bound Emma is caught up in it, too. The crowd of worshipers that surrounds the two fantasy-inspired children grows unruly, and then chaos ensues when a rainstorm disrupts the activities. It all ends in chaos and acrimony, a far cry from whatever message of spiritual harmony that is supposed to be the foundation of religious narratives.

So by this point, more than 70 minutes into the film, there have been three less-than-satisfactory sociocultural illusions presented: (1) the conflicting allure of sexual loyalty (to oneself) and freedom (for oneself), (2) the illusory imagery of bewitching beauty, and (3) the limitations of conventional religion.

4.  Steiner’s party
Marcello has a friend, Steiner, who represents another path. Steiner is a refined intellectual with aesthetic taste, a beautiful wife, and adorable young children. He is wealthy, cordial, and sensitive to all those around him. For Marcello, who seeks to abandon journalism and become a serious writer, Steiner is his ultimate role model.  During a party at Steiner’s place that is filled with artists and intellectuals, Steiner and Marcello huddle together and discuss how one should live life.  Marcello says he wants to have the courage to abandon his materialistic lifestyle and be like Steiner, and he seeks his advice.  But Steiner expresses caution and ambivalence about the unknown fury of existence that is just beyond our gaze:
"Safety is not being locked up in one’s home. . . . A more miserable life is better, believe me, than an existence protected by a perfectly organized society."
A little later, his countenance darkens further:
"Sometimes at night, this darkness, this silence, weighs on me. Peace frightens me. I’m afraid of peace. It looks like an appearance hiding hell. I think of what my children will see tomorrow. They say the world will be beautiful. How?  A phone call can announce the end of the world."

His solution to these horrors seems to be withdrawal and disengagement:
"One should live beyond emotions in the harmony of art works. .in the enchanted order. . . We should learn to love each other so much, to live outside of time, detached. . . Detached!"
5.  With Paola
A little later (the next day?) Marcello, evidently inspired by Steiner to do some serious writing, is seen working at his typewriter at a beachside café.  The waitress there is the essence of utter innocence, and Marcello is captivated – not by carnal lust, but by such an image of untarnished genuineness.  Paola represents another image of life, another pathway – unreflective immediateness – which Marcello encounters but over which he does not linger.  This notion is revisited at the end of the film.

At this point we are about halfway through the film.  The remainder of the story depicts progressive estrangement and detachment from authentic communication.  This detachment is not the intellectual, Platonic detachment that was seemingly invoked by Steiner, but merely distraction from serious engagement.

6.  Father’s Visit
The next day Marcello is informed that his father, a professional salesman, has visited Rome and is looking for him on the Via Veneto. They meet up, and Marcello entertains his father at a Roman nightclub.  But this sequence, also interesting in its portrayal, shows Marcello how little he knows about his father and how separated they are from each other.  Their mutual lack of interest in each other both bemuses and troubles Marcello.

The next evening Marcello has further tempestuous interactions with the overly-clinging Emma,  and this is followed the next morning by the shocking news that, while his wife was out, Steiner killed his two children and committed suicide. Evidently Steiner was unable to face the darkened world that his fearful imagination only skirted. The ensuing scene of the paparazzi almost fiendishly buzzing around Steiner’s bewildered wife when she is informed of the tragedy is one of the most memorable moments of the film.

7.  Party at the Castle
The increasingly disillusioned Marcello follows a group of wealthy partygoers and artists to an engagement party for Marcello’s friend Nico (played by the real Nico, a famous model and singer) at her fiance’s castle.   Marcello runs into Maddalena again, and there is a brief contemplation of further involvement between the two.  But Maddalena warns him: 
“I’ve never wanted to make a choice.  I‘m a prostitute, you know it.  It’s hopeless, I’ll always be.”
8.  Party at the Villa

The final sequence shows another party of wealthy time-wasters. What makes this party different? Here, some time may have passed, and things have degenerated further. Marcello has given up his job as a journalist and become a cynical publicist.  Now, there is no pretense at telling the truth: he writes the lies that his employers pay him to write. While the previous scenes showed refined decadence, this sequence descends entirely into depraved and destructive debauchery. The determinedly enamored Emma is now nowhere in sight. 

In the early hours of the morning, the inebriated partygoers go down to the beach and see that some fishermen have netted a huge sea monster (looking like a giant stingray). The estrangement of the curiosity seekers is complete. They look at the sea monster with utter revulsion, and yet they try to make jokes about it to amuse themselves, too.

In the final moments, Marcello notices Paola from a distance.  She is waving to him, but what was once the image of pure, innocent engagement is now bewildering to him.  He doesn’t even remember her.

There are some great things about Fellini’s work in this film.  Although the story seems to wander almost aimlessly at times, it has its relentless progression from hope to hopelessness. Marcello, who remains the center of focalization throughout, has companions in the various sequences who turn out to represent blind alleys for him:
  • Emma represents drudgery and routine – the promise of a boring life of duty.
  • Maddalena represents complete self-indulgence, a never-ending search for momentary distractions.
  • Sylvia represents fantasy that can never reach realization.
  • Marcello’s father represents estrangement from the traditional values on which he was raised.
  • Steiner represents the reflective life that is so detached from genuine engagement that it can undertake its own dissolution.
  • We are left with only Paola.  Is she, too, an illusion, or does she represent the only real way?
To describe it this way may make the film seem schematic and artificial, but as brought to cinematic realization by Fellini, La Dolce Vita has a narrative movement that is continually gripping. 

It is interesting to compare La Dolce Vita with Michelangelo Antonioni’s vaguely similar La Notte (1961). After all, the two films were both made at about the same time, both starred Marcello Mastroianni, and both were centrally concerned with existential aimlessness. But there are significant differences between the two films, as well. Antonioni’s film focuses more on the multiple internal psychologies of the four principals, each of whom attempts empathetically to ascertain what others around them are really thinking.  Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, on the other hand is more externalized – the psychological ambience in this case is created by the exterior world around Marcello, as realized expressionistically by Fellini. 

The philosopher Martin Heidegger refers to authentic and inauthentic being, two fundamental ways of personal existence [1].  When we are inauthentic, we often attend to what we assume that “they” (a collective, unspecified other) are thinking and demanding; we are existing in accordance with our inner compass.  Heidegger says that we all are mostly and for the most part inauthentic, but sometimes, when we are true to our inner natures, we are authentic. In this regard the main characters in Antonioni’s La Notte continually strive for the illusive authenticity.  They seek authenticity in themselves and others. In La Dolce Vita, however, authenticity is less explicit and even more remote, perhaps only fleetingly suggested by the characters of Steiner and Paola.

On the whole, though, one has to admire the mastery of Fellini's cinematic storytelling. There are numerous scenes in La Dolce Vita that will linger in your memory for years.  Roger Ebert recalls seeing the film five times over a period of almost forty years, and each time he saw new things in the film to appreciate [2].  This is what great films can offer – a portrayal of the fundamental issues of life that we can relate to our own most personal experiences.

  1. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1926/1953/1996), Joan Stambaugh (trans.), State University of New York Press, New York, pp. 126-130.
  2. Roger Ebert, “La Dolce Vita”, RogerEbert.Com, January 5, 1997.

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