La Dolce Vita has often been considered one of Fellini’s weaker films, interesting but flawed, with this assessment especially true when it is contrasted with other of his works such as Otto e Mezzo and La Strada (which both received, and continue to receive, greater critical plaudits).
Halliwell describes it as an ‘episodic satirical melodrama, a marathon self-indulgent wallow with a wagging finger never far away.’1 Pauline Kael, in a more thorough analysis, stated that ‘La Dolce Vita wants to be a great film – it cries out its intentions – and it’s frequently clever … and it’s sometimes effective … . And that is all it is.’2
Kael, as with other contemporary critics, focused on the vice in the film to a degree that is difficult to understand for the contemporary viewer. In fact, Kael appears to think that the (intended) great theme of the film is vice, and thus accuses the film of pandering to voyeurism when it locates this ‘immorality’ among ‘publicity seekers’ and the ‘aimless rich’.3 Tookey similarly complains that La Dolce Vita was ‘daring and sophisticated in 1960, [but] . . has not worn well; it now looks suspiciously like voyeurism, under the guise of moralizing’.4
This essay seeks to counter this lack of critical appreciation, and demonstrate that La Dolce Vita is not simply an exciting, exhilirating film, but a truly great one, and one which still remains remarkably relevant nearly forty years after its release.
While many critics, (misled?) led on perhaps by the film’s title (La Dolce Vita means ‘The Sweet Life’), have focused on the film’s portrayal of a glamorous and corrupt Roman society, the central character, and true subject, of the film is the gossip columnist Marcello (played by the eponymous Marcello Mastroianni). La Dolce Vita is an episodic work, but its chapters are bound together by the presence of common characters, above all Marcello who is present in every one. This structure is related to the unconventional exposition of the film, which eschews a standard plot for a collage effect created by the individual chapters which often constitute miniature films of their own with few characters shared with other sections5. Thus while as the film progresses we learn about Marcello’s character, Marcello himself does not progress, events occur but they happen around Marcello rather than directly to him. The film features no ‘problem’ that Marcello must overcome and no conventionally linear narrative. Instead each episode contributes to building up a mosaic which presents a fascinating, compelling and ultimately depressing portrait of Marcello and the society around him.6
The film commences with a striking and famous shots of a statue of Christ being carried over the city by helicopter. It is worth examining this scene in detail since it will demonstrate the density of composition and cinematic flair present not just in this short section but throughout the film. In the very first shot there are several aspects of interest. The contrast of the helicopters against the background of the ruined viaduct and fields. The climax as the helicopters progress obliquely towards and past the camera, generated and emphasized by the crescendo of sound and camera movement. The clever design of the shot, so that the helicopters path is reinforced by the line of the viaduct, and so that the helicopters appear to pass up away from the camera its shadow briefly caught against the viaduct. Then there is the incidental detail attached to the helicopters journey across Rome. A crowd of children chase after the helicopters as they pass overhead.7 Workmen erect scaffolding and wave to the helicopters. Four women stop their sun-bathing on an apartment roof. We see the occupants of the second helicopter (Marcello and Paparrazo) who stop to try half-seriously to obtain the women’s phone numbers. The final shots intercut the Vatican seen from the helicopters and a view of the statue suspended, rotating slowly as if in benediction of the city. Thus we return chiasmatically, after our journey across the modern Rome with it vast construction projects, to the Vatican linked to that original viaduct by its association with the past.
This a scene full of juxtaposition and contrast. The helicopter against the viaduct, modern Rome versus old Rome, rich next to poor, secular and religious. Even in the editing we alternate between shots of the ground from the helicopters and shots of the helicopters from the ground. The secular informality in tone of much of what we see8 is in tension with the religious presence which carries with it a far more serious air. And finally in this scene we have had an introduction to Rome, dazzling and modern with its bikini clad women and huge building projects, beautiful and superficial.
During the flight we see Marcello very briefly as he attempts to procure the telephone numbers of girls who are sunbathing on a roof but it is in the next scene that he is properly introduced and we meet many of the themes that will be present throughout the film. The scene begins at a restaurant and we discover immediately Marcello’s job of gossip-columnist as he attempts to bribe the maitre’d to allow Paparazzi (his photographer colleague) to take pictures of some couple. The intrusiveness, shallowness, sensationalism and amorality of the tabloid media9 is a constant theme and presence throughout the film but it also serves to show up and parallel the hypocrisy, shallowness and amorality of the film’s characters. In this very scene Marcello is attacked by a guest for his invasion of the couple’s privacy:
Guest: Do I poke my nose in your affairs?
Marcello: You’re not a journalist
Other Guest: He calls this journalism.
(And yet later when it is his affairs – specifically his girlfriend’s suicide attempt- that are the subject of journalist’s questions it is Marcello who wishes desperately to be left alone.) After this brief exchange Maddalena arrives at the restaurant but bored immediately, she leaves with Marcello. Maddalena beautiful and very rich but is troubled by an overwhelming ennui. At the restaurant she complains: ‘Why don’t you close this dump, it’s unspeakable. . .Everything’s wrong this evening’ and later at her house ‘Even Rome’s a bore …I need an entirely new life. Only love-making gives me the right tension.’ With nothing to do she offers to drive home a prostitute who comments on her car. Disengaged and almost wordlessly she sleeps with Marcello at the prostitute’s house and they leave, in the early morning light, the bleak surroundings which are suitably called Dead Souls. Symbolically the casual sex between Marcello and Maddalena takes place in a prostitute’s house. Just as for her (the prostitute) sex is an activity carried out without love or emotion10 so Marcello and Maddalena have sex, yet drive away the next morning as they were when they arrived. As is apparent even more clearly later, for Maddalena love-making is done without love, as an interesting distraction from the boredom of life, above all an activity carried out almost without emotion.
For Marcello these events have an added significance since he returns home to discover that his girlfriend Anna, presumably distraught by his absence for another night, has attempted suicide. Perhaps because of Marcello’s enormous charm11 one forgives, or even fails to notice, his. Rather, one is struck by how upset he is the seemingly genuine concern and affection for Emma. When he is allowed in to see her he kneels by her bed, and kissing her hands asks pleadingly: ‘Oh Emma, . . why did you do it?’12 But then when he the room leaves (saying as he does so ‘I’ll be back soon’) to talk to the police he notices a telephone and casually calls Maddalena. She, asleep, does not even pick up the phone and the scene ends with the shot of her asleep while the telephone rings beside her. Thus at the very moment when Marcello appeared to be and should have been most concerned with Emma he rings Maddalena but he does not even get a reply. The characters fail to connect in all senses.
The next section of the film involves the arrival of the actress Sylvia Rank played by Anita Ekberg. As a film star -and a blonde haired, large-breasted American one- she is the centre of a Roman media frenzy, and thus in this section the media has a central role. The section begins with a swarm of photographers descending on her plane as it arrives and continues at a press conference at her hotel. Here Marcello phones Emma and alternately jealous and begging Emma appears pathetically dependent on Marcello but at the same time to possess the emotional involvement that the other characters so signally lack.13 Moreover, despite dismissive comments made about Sylvia in order to assuage Emma’s jealousy it becomes clear that Marcello has become infatuated with her. He dances with her at a restaurant nightclub in the evening and manages to leave with her after she quarrels with her boyfriend Robert, an alcoholic painter who alone among the characters possesses a certainty, however brutal.
Ironically while it is her impulsive and carefree nature which attracts Marcello it us also these qualities which prevent him from consumating his desire for her. Finally after being sent off to find milk for a stray kitten she has found Marcello returns to discover she has waded into a huge fountain and left the cat once her attention had wandered. It becomes light and back at her hotel Robert sleeps drunkenly in his car providing a photo-opportunity to several photographers. When Marcello arrives with Sylvia, Paparrazzo awakens Robert in order to ensure a scene. Robert slaps Sylvia and beats up Marcello while the photographers enthusiastically exploit the situation.
This plot summary can convey only a little of the brilliance of these section much of which lies in the spectacle and bravura camera work. There is a brilliantly staged dance at the nightclub becomes an anarchic expression of the energy of rock and roll. Then the famous scene of the fountain in which Sylvia and Marcello stand up to their waists as daylight comes. We also have the endless memorable characters; Robert, large, drunk and disagreeable; Sylvia beautific, petulant, delightful, frothy and egotistical. And wandering amiably among them Marcello confused and almost bashful seeing in each new woman a solution to his own terminal lostness.14
Steiner is the most tragic character in the film. To Marcello he represents and offers the intellectual life away from his sordid journalism. He appears at three separate points in the film. First, Marcello accidentally meets him in a church in a section which occurs immediately after the end of the episode discussed above. Secondly, when he hosts an artistic evening party to which Marcello and Emma go. And thirdly in death after he commits suicide and Marcello comes to identify him.
When we first meet him he appears a calm and smiling presence (he is in an empty church) and while complimenting Marcello, he gently enquires after the novel he has been working on. Even in his brief conversation we encounter the striking descriptions that can easily become pretentiousness which will become more in evidence at his evening party. Also present is the depression and self-contempt underlying his warmth which will become even more apparent to us in later episodes.15
At the evening party, Marcello, as usual, suddenly enthused by whatever is directly in front of him, says how much he envies Steiner’s position and is contemptuous of his own0. Steiner replies sharply: ‘Don’t be like me; salvation doesn’t lie within four walls. I’m too serious to be a dilettante and too much of a dabbler to a professional. [Pause] Even the most miserable life is better than a sheltered existence in a organised society where everything is calculated and perfected.’16 He wanders to his children’s bedroom and kisses them as they sleep, continuing in this dark vein and worrying about the future they will face – remarks that will resonate after his suicide when we discover that he has killed his children before himself.17
Steiner’s suicide is the penultimate episode of the film and is shocking in a work which otherwise is so lacking in ‘standard’ dramatic acts. Steiner not only kills himself but also kills his two young children, who lie in the same beds in which he had affectionately kissed them previously. Marcello, as a friend of Steiner, is called by the police to identify the body and dumbfounded by the enormity of it he can barely bother to bat away the journalists and photographers who swarm about the event. Steiner with his warmth, affection and gentle pressure to leave journalism – and the glamorous empty life entwined with it – provides one of the few hopes for Marcello to move away from the job and life which though attractive, he seems ultimately to despise.
However the true loss is Steiner. The calm in Steiner’s flat where the police proceed methodically and unperturbed in contrast to the madhouse outside where the photographers wait and only Marcello seems affected by what has happened. Even he, stunned, can say little and this silence only serves to heighten the sense of tragedy. In a final show of the heartlessness that is their watchword, the photographers pursue Marcello and police inspector when they go to meet Steiner’s wife, ignoring the inspector’s plea to ‘show some consideration for once’.
As Marcello’s girlfriend, Emma plays a central role in the film, and despite their difficulties they are still together at its end. Their relationship is heavily weighted towards Marcello. While he seems independent of and doubtful of the relationship, it dominates her life. Her major demand throughout the film is for Marcello to love her and she constantly makes clear her love for him.18 Yet their relationship is complex. At times Marcello can seem uninterested and annoyed by Emma, but at others he seems concerned and childishly dependent, and he always goes back no matter how much he complains.19 Emma, even though she can be pathetically dependent, is certain of herself, sure of what she wants.
All these tensions come to the fore in their final scene together in which they have a massive argument. Eventually Marcello dumps Emma on the road, but he returns the next morning and our final shot is of the two of them asleep together in bed - a fitting, and fittingly ambiguous, end to the contradictory see-saw [?] relationship. They fling accusations at each other (you can only truly argue in Italian) and it so accurate that it is worth quoting directly:
E: What have I done to be treated like this? Even a dog shouldn’t suffer so . . .If you loved me half as much as I loved you, you’d understand. You don’t understand because you don’t love anyone. You’re an egoist with an empty locked heart. You just chase after women and think that’s love. [She gets out of the car and walks down the road]
M: Okay! Clear off! Leave me once and for all. [Waits. Drives up to her and asks her to get in].
E: What do you want? What are you waiting for. You’re a miserable worm, you’ll end up alone like a dog… You always say I’m crazy … but you’re the one who’s off course … Don’t you realise you’ve found life’s most important thing: a woman who really loves you, who’d die for you. [Gets in car] When two people love the rest doesn’t matter. What are you afraid of?
M: [Pause. Quietly] Of you and your egoism. Don’t you see the wretchedness of the life that you want. All you can talk of is cooking and bed; a man who accepts that is nothing. A real worm! I don’t believe in you aggressive, clinging, maternal love. I don’t want it! It’s no good to me! It’s not love it’s suffocation! I can’t live like that, I can’t live with you! I want to be alone. [Throws Emma out of the car].
Ultimately Marcello’s barbs are far more convincing to the viewer than Emma’s. While Emma’s attacks are too evidently self-serving (Marcello will end up alone so he better take what she can offer him …). Marcello does not love Emma and he rightly senses that they share little. For Emma’s part, one feels that Marcello is right to call her love maternal. She wants to mother someone, and her attachment to Marcello is in no small part derived from his willingness to let this happen and also to resist her mothering and love – which only makes her try harder. The relationship continues because of Marcello’s weakness and Emma’s unwillingness to walk away, to realise he will not change. Thus, while, entirely in character, they end the episode back together, the future of their relationship is bleak.
A great piece of cinema manages to communicate some sense of life itself. Of what it feels like to live and remember. As the party ends and the guests drift away from the beach, we look into the girl’s smile, a perfect wistful ending to this elegiac, unkempt odyssey of a film.
Drowned out by the sea Marcello is incapable of talking to her and stumbles away half-drunk in the early morning light. Yet despite this final separation, in her beautific smile we feel that fleeting sense of optimism which believes that the still beauty of an instant can redeem everything.20
The sheer density of this film precludes any easy summary. It sprawls, glamorous and squalid like the city and characters it portrays. In every respect it only seems to have grown in stature since its release. The searing portrayal of the intrusiveness, dishonesty, parasitism of the tabloid media seems even more relevant today than at the time of the film’s appearance. In its examination of a society which indulges in an endless round of pleasure-seeking to escape the lurking emptiness we have a presage of today’s world.
Beautifully shot and edited, with a huge number of characters all of whom are memorable and well-drawn, this film despite its length rarely bores and can be watched again and again (the first test of a film’s worth). In Marcello we have a fascinating central character. Charming and weak, seeking but never finding his way, never giving up his endless affairs and parties but never content with them. In his final surrender to the sweet life we have the film’s pessimistic conclusion.
It is a film about emptiness, nothingness. ‘Perhaps he was afraid, afraid of himself, of us all’ Marcello remarks of Steiner after his suicide. The futility or failure of relationships is a constant theme. The one appearance of Marcello’s father ends in muted despair as Marcello tries unsuccessfully to persuade his father, who he never sees, to stay in Rome so they can talk. ‘We never see each other’ he implores, but his father does not even seem to hear.21
Similarly at the very moment when Marcello is attempting to talk to Maddalena she is betraying his confidence by kissing another man. Marcello constantly betrays Emma, and their relationship is deeply troubled – and . This pervading cynicism is reinforced by episodes like ‘The Children of the Maddona’ and the behaviour of the tabloid journalists, presenting us with a bleak picture of human behaviour.
Behind the whole lies that question which continues to torment modern man: if we are not bound by need or God what are we to do with ourselves? The hedonist’s answer is to indulge in a constant round of pleasure-seeking and entertainment? Party after party after party? But yet at some point there must be an ending, a settling of accounts. For Marcello, not even the casual sex and parties (both glamorous) intended like drugs to make us oblivious to stop us thinking, to prevent us getting scared, to drown us in the here and now, can prevent a painful awareness of the emptiness.22 ‘I’ll amuse you, the party mustn’t end. We’ll stay; maybe someone will come’ he says23 at the final party desperate to avoid the painful return to reality.
But, yet, at some point there must be an ending, a settling of accounts. For Marcello, just as for his generation, the alcohol and sex and parties – all drugs to make us oblivious, to stop us thinking, to prevent us getting scared, to down us in a superficial here and now – ultimately fail to prevent prevent a painful awareness of the desolation they bring in their wake.24
Happiness even more so than a ‘good time’ proves elusive. We see both the emptiness of La Dolce Vita and the lack of anything better. It is in showing us this that above all else, which makes Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as a truly great film.
In an episode which follows that of Steiner in the church Emma accompanies Marcello and Paparazzo to cover the story of the ‘children of the Madonna’: two children have supposedly miraculously seen the Madonna in a field. The real subject of the episode is the huge frenzied edifice of pilgrims, media, and baggage-train followers that has grown up over the event. In the course of the episode Emma, succumbing to the combination of egoism and hope that drives the frenzy half-prays: ‘Madonna if he marries me I’ll come here barefoot everyday to thank you. But all I ask is that he loves me and is all mine as he once was.’
The whole episode is culminates in a brilliantly staged semi-riot which occurs after the children have been released from the police station. Unsurprisingly given the subject there is much attack on the corrosive nature of the media. Interviews are invented and photographs are posed. The sordid artificiality and sensationalism which is present not just in the media but in the actions of the protagonists is painfully obvious (the visions of the children and adults are clearly made up for the sake of attention) ‘Those who see the Madonna do not seek profit by it. Miracles are born in solitude not in such chaos’ says the priest of the area. ‘Let me win the lottery’ shouts a voice in the crowd as the children come trooping out. It starts to rain and after the children leave there is rush to grab part of the ‘miracle’ tree which had been involved with the visions. In the vicious destruction of the tree we find a fitting symbol of the rapacious egotistic greed so artfully attacked throughout the episode. (One should note also in passing that it is not unironic that there is so much spectacle in a episode attacking spectacle. There are moments of sensationalism in the film’s own portrayal. For example the fact that at the very end of the episode we see the burial the next morning of someone who died during the night – probably one of the invalids who had been brought to be cured. )[return]
This episode, the final of the film, is an important one. It becomes clear that Marcello is going to continue in the same way as before, that he is not going to try to escape from the job and life he is not satisfied with. In fact in some ways things have deteriorated. He is no longer a journalist but rather a publicity agent and writes sickening puff pieces for the star who employs him (‘I know you must make a living but isn’t this squalid?’ one of the guests asks Marcello.)
During the party and after he is drunk, and behaves unpleasantly (his humiliating use of the girl from Fano for entertainment is only very partially justified by the drunkeness of the girl and himself). Marcello himself is humiliated and made fun of. He is patronised, the owner of the house threatens to throw him out and finally he is dragged around and made to apologise for his rudeness. The impromptu party itself does not go very well. ‘The party’s still cold’, ‘This party’s a bore’, even Nadia’s strip is interrupted by the arrival of Riccardo - the owner of the house. The desperation for a good time is evident. ‘No one leaves before dawn’ decrees Marcello, trying to keep things going. But as light comes it ends though we are left with one last wonderful shot as the guests dance out through a shower of feathers.
Outside in the light of the new day there is something of the end of party come down (“I felt so pretty, all made-up. Now I just feel sticky. I’ve lost interest in all of this.”) But mixed in with it is the hope and exhiliration of a new day; life will still go on, always pregnant with the possibility of the unexpected (the great fish and the chance meeting with the girl.)[return]