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.
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.
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.
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.
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.