2015 Blind Spot Series: “La Dolce Vita”

VITA POSTER

For the film’s main character Marcello, La Dolce Vita or “the sweet life” is like a carrot dangling before a horse. It keeps him moving forward while remaining out of reach. Marcello, played with spot-on precision by Marcello Mastroianni, searches for happiness, contentment, and fulfillment – that good life hinted at by the movie’s title. But for him they are unattainable dreams. Or are they unattainable? Are they goals meant only for the more talented and affluent? Are they far-fetched canards that prey on gullible optimists? Or do they really exist if only he were looking in the right places? This is a small handful of the questions asked in “La Dolce Vita”.

Federico Fellini’s seminal classic has been broken down, dissected, and interpreted a number of different ways. The film’s basic structure becomes apparent as the movie progresses. It basically consists of seven independent episodes bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. It’s common timeframe starts at nighttime and then moves to the dawn that follows. Marcello serves as the common link between each episode. Many critics have highlighted the film’s significant sevens: the seven episodes, the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues, etc. This is an intriguing perspective that begs for a more careful examination of the film. Personally I’m more drawn to other concepts and themes that Fellini explores.

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Marcello is our connection, our mooring, the pulsing blood vessel running through the entire film. Early in the movie he comes across as spirited and confident. In the famous opening prologue a helicopter is transporting a huge statue of Christ to St. Peter’s Square. Marcello follows in a second helicopter filming the event, but takes a detour to solicit phone numbers from some rooftop bathing beauties. In the first episode we see him at a lively nightclub where he brushes off the threat of a man who wants to “smash his face” and leaves with a beautiful heiress. In both of these scenes Marcello appears to be self-assured and full of energy.

But as the film moves forward and the layers of the character are peeled back, we see a very different man. Marcello is a tabloid journalist whose work consists of chronicling the escapades of wealthy socialites, pseudo-actors and actresses, and self-indulgent playboys. It’s shallow and unfulfilling work that does nothing to satisfy his desire to be a serious writer. In fact the longer we stay with Marcello, the clearer we sense his growing state of melancholy.

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Marcello Mastroianni perfectly displays the suave, voguish facade Fellini is going for. Mastroianni’s handsome face, well-groomed hair, fancy suits, and stylish sunglasses sells us a character who seems cool and satisfied. But we watch him grow more weary and jaded with each passing episode, with each superficial aristocrat he encounters, with every shallow and spurious ‘news story’ he covers. Through Marcello the film builds up a lavish, attractive, self-indulgent perspective and then knocks it to the ground. It tempts us to indulge in the trendy excesses of “the sweet life” while at the same time systematically destroying the very idea of “la dolce vita”.

Fellini’s view of the good life and the quest to capture it could be called cynical. But it could be he is pointing to a particular perception of the good life (one that was especially popular in 1959 Rome) and focusing on its seductive dishonesty. The film gives us plenty of great scenes and characters to examine in our search for answers. There is the early nightclub scene and the meeting of Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), a rich and beautiful heiress who sees Marcello as her man of convenience. He clearly has feelings for her, but she basically uses him as her toy.

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Then there is the famous episode with Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) a ravishing buxom blonde actress from America. She arrives in Rome and Marcello is to report on her stay. Swarmed by obsessed news reporters (it’s from “La Dolce Vita” that we get the word paparazzi) Marcello dismisses Sylvia at first. But soon he falls for the ‘perfect woman’ aura that surrounds her and which culminates in the film’s most memorable moment – wading in the Trevi Fountain. But like waking up from a dream, Marcello’s romantic moment dissolves before his eyes. Again, something else outside of his reach.

Perhaps the most telling is the three-part episode revolving around Marcello’s friend Steiner (Alain Cuny). He’s a wealthy intellectual who represents everything Marcello hopes to be. He’s has a luxurious home, the perfect family, high-class friends. In one scene Marcello and his unstable fiancé Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) attend a party at Steiner’s home. Marcello loves mingling with Steiner’s poet, artist, and intellectual friends and at one point Emma tells him that someday he will have Steiner’s material and social affluence. But in the third act of Steiner’s episode Fellini hits Marcello and us head-on with a not so subtle smack of reality. Another dream crushed under the weight of truth.

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This only scratches the surface of “La Dolce Vita ” and its numerous themes and concepts. I could talk about the scene where Marcello is typing at a seaside cafe and meets a young waitress named Paola – perhaps the one truly innocent character of significance he encounters. I could speak of the episode where Marcello’s father pays a visit. It’s the only clear look we get into Marcello’s past. I could go on and on. Fellini gives us so much to talk about and he never wastes a moment. Every episode and every scene offers something of narrative, thematic, or cinematic value.

I could go on and talk about the incredible visual technique used by Fellini, the diverse and personality-rich locales, the beautifully strategic use of music. With “La Dolce Vita” Federico Fellini has created a masterpiece that feeds off of every aspect of the cinematic experience. He captures your eyes with his entrancing visuals, he sucks you in through his fascinating characters, he challenges you through his intelligent thematic examinations. In a nutshell “La Dolce Vita” is cinema that we don’t see these days. Thankfully Fellini gave us this rich classic that is always worth revisiting.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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26 thoughts on “2015 Blind Spot Series: “La Dolce Vita”

  1. Pingback: 2015 Blind Spot Lineup | Keith & the Movies

  2. This was the first film of Fellini that I saw back in 2004 at a special screening for the film. Truly one of the finest experiences that I had ever seen on the big screen as it’s still my favorite. I still own my 3-disc box set that I got at a used DVD/CD store a long time ago for $35. Still the best purchase that I’ve made in that store along w/ a used Criterion DVD set of The Man Who Fell to Earth just before the store would close sadly.

    • Wow!!! Color me jealous!!! I would love to see this on the big screen. I’ve watched this three times already and I can’t believe it took me so long to see it. I don’t give many five star ratings but this fully deserves it.

      I bet that box said is really cool. I have the Criterion Collection Blu-ray version and it is amazing.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with the film. Great to hear from someone who loves it as much as I do.

      • You’ll really enjoy it. It’s a gorgeous transfer.

        This is the first time I’ve ever tried this BlindSpot thing but the first two films of the series have been real treats.

  3. Really illuminating review Keith, it makes me want to sit down and watch the film again (though I can’t as I don’t own it!). Fascinating analysis. I think Mastroianni’s performance in this film is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

    • Thanks so much Stu. I can’t understand why I put off seeing the movie for so long. I guess these BlindSpot things are pretty cool!

      It’s funny, since sitting down to watch it for this series I have now seen it three times and I could watch it again right now. It’s truly a rare 5 star movie for me. Just love it.

      • Fantastic! Three times in a month or so? That’s the sign of a classic. I wish I’d done a BlindSpot series as I have plenty of gaps to fill but I’m sure most of them will still be there next year.

      • I’ve never done one before. They have been fun to follow on other sites but I’ve dismissed them for the most part. My mistake. I find myself looking forward to it each month.

    • STOP THE PRESSES!!!!! 😉

      Hey thanks for reading man! Brilliant indeed, right? I’m telling you, I was captivated from the opening scene and I’ve gleaned so much more with every subsequent viewing. This is Fellini in his best form.

    • Thanks so much Wendell. Appreciate you reading it. No idea why I waited so long on this one. It’s well worth the rare 5 star rating. I would be anxious to hear your take on it.

  4. Oooh, this is one I should add to my Blindspot list Keith! Mmmm, Mr Mastroianni 😉

    Btw, I finally got to see another Billy Wilder black & white classic for this month’s Blindspot, and I’d consider it his magnum opus.

    • Anxious to read about it Ruth! Posting soon?

      You really need to see this one. As you know I don’t give five stars lightly. This one is so worth it. As I told other commenters, I’ve already watched it three times. It’s that good.

  5. The George Eastman House, here in Rochester, will be screening this in a couple of weeks. I may attend. Been such a long time since I have seen this. Great write up and retrospective on this classic, Keith! This film is so epic on every damn level. Don’t get me started on Fellini bro lol.

    By the way, Keith, I am doing some Vic’s Classic’s back to back and I think you will dig my choices. I will stay in touch and once again, good work on this post!

    • Profoundly good filmmaking here bro. On every level. Absolutely beautiful on a visual level and so full of smart and crafty thematic elements. I adore this film and I can’t stop watching it.

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