2015 Blind Spot Series: “La Dolce Vita”


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.


An examination of Fellini’s “8 1/2”

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Director Federico Fellini has long been one of Italy’s most important gifts to the world of cinema. A daring and proficient filmmaker, Fellini had a career that featured various stages of evolution. Most notably was his turn from popular Italian neorealism to an almost surreal fantasy mode of cinematic storytelling. There are some who have viewed Fellini’s shift in style and approach as a turn in the wrong direction and a small handful of his later films may support that view. But I can’t go along with that, especially when said style shift gave us treasures like “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2”.

“8 1/2” is a semi-autobiographical film that gets its name from the eight and a half feature films and shorts Fellini had made up to that point. For the first time in his life Fellini was experiencing a creative stall. His struggles with director’s block inspired him to start over and make a film about a prominent Italian director laboring through the same creative pains. Trusted actor and friend Marcello Mastroianni would play the lead role of Guido Anselmi who is an undeniable reflection of Fellini with a few added dramatic twists.


At first glance it may be easy to dismiss “8 1/2” as a malaise of off-beat dream sequences and surreal imagery. But as with every great cinematic work, there are layers of creativity and ambition that one can’t appreciate with a single viewing. There is no doubting that at that point in his career Fellini was a visual storyteller and his images play a pivotal part in “8 1/2”. But they aren’t images just for the sake of images. Fellini has specific things in mind and it takes some digging to find their meaning.

Take his dream sequences as an example. Each of the film’s dream sequences serve as an escape for Guido – a refuge from the anxiety and stresses of his real life. But each dream also feeds us information about who Guido really is. Some are simply memories taken from his past. Some are past memories heightened with hyperbolic flare. Others are full blown dreams emphasizing Guido’s perspectives, his fantasies, or his different states of mind. In other words the dream sequences in “8 1/2” aren’t simply indulgences or vain attempts at masking Fellini’s uncertainties.


While the movie isn’t thick with plot, it paints a mesmerizing portrait. Its story resides within the Guido character and the absorbing performance from Mastroianni. We get an idea of who Guido is through the film’s unforgettable opening scene. While caught up in a massive traffic jam smoke filters from the vents of his car filling the cab. Desperate for help he pounds the windows, but everyone around him simply stares. He manages to escape and makes an angelic-like ascension. But while in the air and getting a small taste of freedom, he feels the tug from a rope that is tied around his leg. On the other end of the rope is a member of his production team who represents the maddening life he can’t seem to escape.

Guido is surrounded by chaos. He is a respected director working on a big budget science fiction picture, but his deadline to begin filming has come and gone. A huge hunk of “8 1/2” takes place at a fancy Italian resort where his cast and crew have gathered to begin working on the film. The problem is Guido has hit a creative wall and his apathy is frustrating everyone involved. He is bombarded with pressure from his short-tempered producer, his misanthropic lead writer, a high-maintenance French actress, and several others from his production crew. Guido has no defined plan for his movie and we slowly witness the emotional toll it is taking on him.

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There is another contributor to Guido’s melancholy. It’s his messy, complicated web of relationships which includes his wife and mistress. The alluring Anouk Aimée plays Guido’s wife Luisa, a smart and elegant woman frustrated by her husband’s indifference. Carla (Sandra Milo), his mistress, is a chintzy, nagging starlet who irritates as much as excites. It appears as if Guido juggles these relationships without an ounce of thought. At one point in the film he has both women at the resort at the same time. But is this simply a mismanagement of his mangled love life or is it an intentional move by a man desperate for some form of resolution? As with most of “8 1/2” there is more to it than what we see on the surface.

Guido’s perception of women, love, and romance is skewed. We see this in the film’s famous harem dream sequence which features all of the women in Guido’s life embodying various fulfillments of his imagination. While it does reveal his warped perspectives, the dream also visualizes the internal conflict that’s fueling Guido’s deteriorating state of mind. In essence Guido can’t escape the turmoil in his dreams or his reality. To combat this mental and emotional back-and-forth Guido loses himself in reoccurring visions of the “perfect” woman. The stunning Claudia Cardinale represents his ultimate fantasy. She is his symbol of purity, spontaneity, and innocence. She is always dressed in white and she appears with a ghostly elegance and grace. She is his dream girl.


But as with everything else in Guido’s life, reality offers a much different perspective than his fantasies. That gets to the greater point of “8 1/2” – dealing with reality instead of fleeing from it and finding genuine inner happiness. At the same time and more directly Fellini examines the pains and pressures that accompany creativity – the inspirations and expectations filmmakers struggle with during the creative process. Roger Ebert called this the best film ever made about filmmaking. It’s hard to argue with him.

“8 1/2” is a movie that marches to its own beat and it doesn’t follow any established formula or convention. It is free of any and all caution and hesitation. It is a film that will undoubtedly still have detractors who won’t completely respond to its unbridled vision. But it could be said that the true beauty of “8 1/2” is found in its confusion. It’s found in the physical and psychological mayhem. It’s found in Fellini’s unique film language and audacious visual approach. And the most amazing thing about “8 1/2”? It found its genesis and inspiration in the mind of a struggling, burdened auteur. It just goes to show that true cinematic art, much like the life we choose to live, originates within us and not in some polished and meticulously detailed script.