“It was a nice party, but that’s enough. Enough, enough, enough.”
La Dolce Vita, released only three years before his masterpiece, 8½, is one of Federico Fellini’s best-known films, although in some ways, it is not typical of his craft. It is an example of the neo-realism he favours and uses some of the same peculiar, slightly surreal imagery he is famous for, but it is not as exaggerated in what one critic called the “circus-y” appearance, the deliberately grotesque scenes, as many of his films. By Fellini standards, it could be called almost ordinary.
The story follows Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a tabloid and celebrity gossip writer, through several typical days. He is accompanied at times by a few regular companions: his girlfriend, the melancholy but loyal and sensible Emma (Magali Noel), whom he neglects in spite of her being the most positive thing in his life; and his colleagues, mainly celebrity photographers, including his friend Paparazzo. Fantastically, the character’s name is the Italian slang for the irritating buzzing of a mosquito, is the origin of the now-common word “paparazzi”, and is likely the aptest term ever devised for incessantly hovering tabloid photographers. Marcello is without clear motivations, beyond a vague wish to better himself, slight envy of the rich and famous he writes about. He has hazy ambitions to do more as a writer but lacks the drive to make a real attempt. The same lack of energy applies to his personal and social life. He drifts in and out of situations, social gatherings, ideas, affections, but nothing really takes hold. Most of the characters surrounding him seem to suffer from the same ennui and lack of connection, and this hollowness becomes the thread that runs through the entire film.
Fellini establishes the desired prevailing mood with appropriately uninspiring settings, such as the bland and depressing, newly constructed apartment complexes, being built-in large numbers in Rome at the time of filming, which is the backdrop for multiple scenes in La Dolce Vita. Traditional religious themes and imagery are frequently used, mostly as a way to show – ironically or by contrast – the spiritual emptiness of the society in which they exist. The title is clearly meant to be satirical: there is no evidence of a genuine “sweet life” in the course of the story, not even in the superficial sense of the charmed life of the wealthy elite; it exists only as a facade or an imaginary goal which is never achieved.
There is no very distinct plot to speak of, no clear beginning or end. The story consists of a series of largely disjointed episodes, held together only by the fact that Marcello and his friends are involved in all of them. There has been some speculation that the episodes are meant to represent the seven deadly sins, the seven hills of Rome, the seven ages of man, or some such, but there is no clear evidence of such an intent, and Fellini has never confirmed it. Each of these scenarios demonstrates Marcello’s aimlessness and emotional emptiness, beginning with quite ordinary events and building up to situations that challenge his refusal to engage more and more directly.
The film opens with one of several examples of religious imagery placed in stark contrast to distinctly unspiritual situations. As a group of young women sunbathe in bikinis on a rooftop, a helicopter is seen transporting an enormous statue of Christ across the city. The women laugh and wave at the statute as Marcello attempts to get their phone numbers. From here, Marcello moves rather aimlessly through the city, finally picking up a young woman named Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) and taking her home, inviting a prostitute whom they encounter to accompany them. The outwardly daring situation culminates in nothing but the three falling asleep, apparently too apathetic to do more. Marcello occasionally encounters Maddalena during the course of the film, but they meet each other with indifference. This sense of torpor, overpowering everything, remains a theme throughout.
Having become familiar with Marcello and his situation, we move on to the arrival in Rome of gorgeous movie star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), who is more a fantastical caricature of beauty and feminine allurement than a realistic portrayal of it. Marcello, who tends to be dismissive of beauty or affection from “real” women, is naturally very taken by the artificial charm of Sylvia. He temporarily shakes off his boredom, and they carry on a passionate flirtation that is almost comically movie-like and unreal. Their brief pseudo-romance culminates in the famous fountain scene, in which the showily impulsive Sylvia jumps into the Trevi fountain in her evening gown, posing provocatively beside the falling water. Marcello follows her, but as they are about to embrace, the flowing water is shut off abruptly, and their entire, brief love story comes to an awkward and sudden halt as if a director had called “Cut!” at that moment. It is a strange and hilarious encounter, and it establishes very well what is going on with Marcello: he is attracted to the false and imaginary, while the genuine cannot move him or hold his attention.
Each ensuing episode offers another perspective on the growing shallowness of European society as represented by the central characters, including journalist Marcello’s coverage of a supposed mystic vision of the Virgin Mary by two young children. The materialistic attitude of the crowd and the members of the press is unpleasantly exploitive, but the visionary children and their entourage are not much less so. Are the visions meant to be real? One elderly character expresses the opinion that it does not matter; she begins to explain that Italy’s traditions and attitudes are steeped in Christianity, providing a value that goes beyond such questions. Marcello nods vacantly at her words and moves away.
Marcello leaves the scene behind and goes to a café, where he is served by a young girl. He is struck by what he describes as her angelic appearance and manner. It is the closest attention Marcello has paid to any one individual so far, and we are left uncertain of the significance of the encounter, which will be revisited before the end of the film.
Marcello goes through several other interludes which seem designed to force him out of his cultivated apathy: a poignant meeting with his elderly father, whom he has seen little of in recent years; a terrible quarrel with Emma, who cannot understand his inability to return her love or his casual infidelity; and a visit to a close friend who seems to have a perfect life, with a loving wife and beautiful children, and a circle of clever, influential friends, yet who inexplicably commits suicide a short time later.
Even these events are not enough to shock Marcello into self-reflection or serious thought, or not for long at least. Determined to forget his friend’s suicide, he attends a wild house party and gives himself over to revelry. The party itself, while full of constant activity, seems to lack any kind of sustained energy or feeling. The guests are happily and proudly aware of themselves as decadent and talk of their party as a potential orgy, yet the energy to bring about anything like a real orgy is lacking. One woman begins to do a strip-tease, but it winds to a stop halfway through, weighed down by her own lack of interest and her audience’s. The group’s scandalous talk – like most of what they do – is mainly pretence. Marcello, depressed and a little desperate to distract himself, tries to liven things up, but it comes to nothing.
At dawn, in the final act of the film, the party-goers wander to a nearby beach. At the shoreline, a monstrous, perhaps prehistoric fish is being dragged to shore in nets. Fellini, who uses Catholic symbolism freely in his films despite his ambiguity about the actual Catholic church, is clearly using the fish as a traditional symbol of Christianity or of Christ. Marcello and his friends exclaim over the creature, making jokes about it, while the fishermen anticipate the amount of money the fish will bring in. Marcello catches the eye of the great fish, which seems to stare at him solemnly; then, he falls quickly back into his familiar attitude of cynicism and joins the others in joking. He notes the creature’s gaze on him, its sadness, but only sneers mockingly, “But it insists on looking!” He wanders away from the gathering at the water’s edge.
Across a small stream, Marcello catches sight of a young girl – the same angelic girl who had served him earlier at the café. She is calling to him, but he is unable to hear from where he is standing. He several times asks her to repeat what she is saying, then loses interest and turns away. The girl waves goodbye to him as if to say, it’s no use, you can’t be reached, and the film ends as the girl turns to look directly at the camera. Such a striking and serious ending to a film consisting primarily of frivolity and meaninglessness stands out with particular clarity.
La Dolce Vita is a relatively easy film to watch and is probably ideal as a first Fellini film for those unfamiliar with his other work. Its quality is recognised now as when it was released; the film won multiple awards, including the Palme d’Or. It introduces Fellini’s unique imagery and creative storytelling in a less extreme way than some of his later films; his comedy, which may be something of an acquired taste, is less jarring and grotesque than in other movies; and the central characters, while not necessarily likeable, are relatively sympathetic. It introduces us to Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s lead actor in several films that followed, and Anouk Aimee, whom he also cast in 8½. The film also stands up to the passing decades better than most sixties movies, and its approach to realism, whose influence can still be felt in contemporary films, is something any movie lover might want to become more familiar with.