La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini)
There’s little doubt by now that Fellini isn’t to my taste, but I was deeply unfair to his watershed arthouse touchstone La Dolce Vita as a young cinephile who wanted everything to be Double Indemnity, and was wrong to characterize it back then as a fatalistic montage of parties, even though critics like Dave Kehr have similarly argued that the film is a bit empty. But like Amarcord and like the Altman films it seems to have directly inspired, this is a series of episodes, all of which are beautifully photographed and performed, and several of which are riveting, not least because (in a sense that suggests L’Avventura, made the same year) the settings of Fellini’s micro-narratives, all centering Marcello Mastroianni as a horny but bored journalist in Rome, are so rapturously vivid that all of the human dramas positioned within them attain considerably more grace than they might otherwise have, like for instance a tryst with an heiress in a prostitute’s dilapidated apartment, or an unrequited sojourn with an actress that ends with an ecstatic dance in the Trevi Fountain.
Still, the most riveting scenes are models of good characterization that doesn’t necessarily infect the whole picture, which has been criticized since its release in some circles for relying on archetypes. Apart from Marcello himself, who we can believe is weary and confused and weighted down with a sense of loss thanks more to the performance than to the way the character is written, we meet the stoic, warm and seemingly wizened writer Steiner (Alain Cuny), who quietly betrays a certain malaise that turns out to have ominous consequences; Marcello’s long-suffering girlfriend (fiancee?) Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), who opens the picture in the midst of a suicide attempt that appears to be the latest of many; and most tellingly of all, Marcello’s troubled absentee father (Annibale Ninchi), whose dirty-old-man boasting and misguided hedonism appear more to us than to Marcello, whose pain about their distance renders him nothing more than a child again, as the sad eventual consequence of the empty world he inhabits.
And there are others, other grand gestures and iconic moments that justify their reputation; where I get lost a bit is in the film’s actual arc and thesis. My issue comes down to this: is there any profundity in Fellini simply straightforwardly expressing the contradictory aspects of his point of view as if just laying its shortcomings out will excuse them? I have a similar struggle, in a sense, with Lubitsch, whose Heaven Can Wait seems to acknowledge the full breadth of pain caused by his own infidelity but operates on the odd premise that simply being aware of one’s asshole tendencies makes them acceptable. Fellini also wants to have it both ways with all of his characters here — his presumptive autobiographical vessel Marcello, in advance of the same basic role in 8½, wanders through a decadent life of longing, fucking and betraying but his misgivings about it are treated sentimentally, as if his being upset about his impulsive behavior makes him three-dimensional and sophisticated. Steiner, the friendly domesticated sophisticate he knows, talks of the beauty of fatherhood but is secretly bored and unfulfilled by his complacent lifestyle — yet the sight of his seemingly happy home obviously reverberates within Marcello when he takes Emma back after a huge blow-up in his car wherein he accuses her of smothering him. Alas, this moment of decisiveness is negated in turn by the tragic and quite monstrous end Fellini assigns to Steiner, which results in a total orgy of apathy on Marcello’s part in the final portion of the film. In place of Antonioni’s eventual tennis-playing mimes, we get an adolescent waitress Marcello saw earlier waving to him from a distance on the beach as the sun rises, suggesting innocence in a way that admittedly looks and feels intoxicating — even though this very nostalgia for a free, blissful naivete that also drives several other Fellini pictures just plays as mythical and hackneyed thematically. The simple world Marcello and Fellini seek is an impossible object to touch because it is, frankly, nonexistent; and the irony is that those frantic, desperate graspings for it are the mark of an eternal child.
Yet you can’t quite help but go with it — that innocence, that moment of unguarded kindness by the sea, has the same sharp purity of feeling as the redemptive end of Nights of Cabiria, and here too is a sign of the basic duplicity of La Dolce Vita, because not only does this ethereal, childlike ideal look stunning in Fellini’s hands, like everything you’d want out of the world, but for the most part so does the exact behavior and stultifying chaos it seems to rebuke. Of course there are moments of tedium when Marcello is carousing around with friends and attempting to climb into bed with virtually every woman he meets, regardless of outside promises and obligations; but there are also moments when you want to be right there in the midst of it all. Needless to say, the film’s and lead character’s statements about moral decay and debauchery wouldn’t be convincing if it looked like a dreadful funeral march — though I think Sofia Coppola managed to use that technique quite convincingly in Somewhere — and it’s fortunate Fellini doesn’t scold us for our voyeuristic glimpses at what is often a sexy good time, which is the tactic employed by all too many finger-wagging movies about excess and excitement to this day: they wallow in the muck and then punish the viewer for getting a thrill out of the wallowing.
But verbalizing doubts about one’s move away from old-world familial comfort, which certainly carried its own hefty collection of problems and the potential for the same variety of emotional stunting, while also glamorizing and forgiving the hard-living, promiscuous fast-lane culture — and at extravagant length, to boot — seems less insightful than simplistic, an avoidance of real insight. Though they are equally flawed films, Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Buñuel’s Viridiana deconstructed the empty ideology of abundance in a sharper, wittier manner, which betrays the great truth of Fellini’s work in this vein: he doesn’t really want to give all this beauty up, he just wants you to know he has very mixed feelings about all of it. In the end, while I don’t question anyone’s right to feel depressed or apathetic, it seems to me that Marcello, surrounded by interesting and vibrant friends in a gorgeous city full of life, will have very little to complain about once he finally and completely breaks up with a woman he treats terribly and clearly doesn’t love. Moreover, I get the feeling that someday Marcello, whatever his future holds, will look back on this time with the same wistful yearning that’s screwing up his evenings now; he strikes me as someone who never will be satisfied with the present. Perhaps that’s the feeling the film actually means to convey: a perpetual and neverending dissatisfaction with society and self that precludes nothing much apart from quiet, endless sulking that occasionally interrupts all the indulgence. But if so, it limits us to the role of dispassionate observers, no matter how wonderful some of the things we get to look at are.