It is 50 years since Federico Fellini made La Dolce Vita. That fact alone makes the film fresh again. It is no longer a movie about the contemporary world, even if its critique of shallow, fame-obsessed popular culture feels relevant as ever.
It is said, often enough, that La Dolce Vita represents the transition from Fellini’s early works of neo-realism to his later, more fantastical films. There is surely some truth in the claim. La Dolce Vita has no explicit storyline and moves along with a series of episodes that never resolve. You’d be hard-pressed to explain to someone, with concision, what La Dolce Vita is about. The opening scene is a good example. It is unforgettable as a series of images. A giant statue of Jesus Christ is being carried by helicopter. Jesus passes by the ruins of a Roman aqueduct. The shadow of the statue and helicopter are captured on the stark white wall of an apartment unit. The copter passes over a bevy of beauties sunbathing on a nearby roof. Jiggling female bottoms fill the screen. What does it all mean? Who knows? It is simply something that could happen in Rome in the middle of the 20th century. And when it does, you can never forget it.
Watching La Dolce Vita again as an old movie, a movie from another generation about another age, I was able to see the film in its full strangeness. I felt the shock and immediacy with which it must have been watched by those who saw it at first release. I wasn’t trying to interpret the movie so much as simply to watch it. I stopped worrying about how the supposed seven nights and days of La Dolce Vita relate to the Seven Deadly Sins. I could never quite make that whole interpretive schema work out right anyway. There’s enough to worry about in La Dolce Vita without the meta-worries of interpretation.
The fights between Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), the main character of the movie, and his girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) are excruciating. It is nighttime and Emma and Marcello are arguing in the car. It’s not just a car, actually — it is a little Triumph convertible. No car has ever looked so good in a movie, soaking up the light of that crisp black-and-white film stock. Marcello tells Emma that to accept her love would be to accept the life of a worm, not a man. I don’t believe in your love, he tells her, it is aggressive, cloying, maternal.
It kills me when he says “maternal.” There is, of course, something too much about Emma and her love. It is all-consuming. But Marcello is so wrong at that moment. He has become terrible. He kicks her out of the car and drives away. You know he will return, as he does. But that return is a terrible defeat. Emma gets back into the car without a word and they are both made the lesser by it. Devastating. Only the car itself is beautiful, driving away down the dusty road at dawn.
What about the scene where Marcello meets up with his father at the café below his apartment? He takes his father to a club nearby and they flirt with a French girl dancing in the show. Pathetic and loveable all at once, Marcello’s father wants the night to stretch on forever. He sparkles in his desperation. How far will he go? They all proceed to the girl’s apartment under the pretext of eating some spaghetti. Marcello arrives late, only to find out that his father has had some sort of episode. He is OK, but the night has been ruined. Everyone is thinking of death. Marcello’s father is just an old man again, an old man who wants nothing more than to go home on the morning train. Stay with me, says Marcello, we never spend time together. No, says his father, I have to get home.
Maybe one thing Fellini accomplished with La Dolce Vita was not a move away from realism, but rather a broadening of the boundaries of what we mean by “realism.” Realism doesn’t have to be, exclusively, a realism of the everyday. Realism can be extraordinary, or uncanny, or surprising. What makes La Dolce Vita realism is that it gives you the strange straight up, in the same way that we do, in fact, experience strange and extraordinary things all the time. The events of our lives always fail to resolve themselves into tidy explanations.
In the last scene of La Dolce Vita, Marcello and a band of misfit revelers and partygoers wander out onto the beach where a giant, squid-like creature has washed up to shore. Everyone gawks at the creature for a little while and then goes away.
The scene is arresting and disturbing, just like the rest of the movie. When you step away from the scene in the attempt at analysis, it fades away. So don’t. Just watch in stunned silence at the dead empty eyes of the beast, and the dead empty eyes of Marcello as he wanders off — dashing, handsome, and utterly unsure about what he is supposed to do with what he has just seen. • 16 September 2010