Eric D. Snider April 20, 2010
The 2004 re-release of La Dolce Vita gave movie critics a chance to praise Federico Fellini‘s 1960 masterpiece in retrospect. At the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, “Fellini achieved the ideal balance — between social observation and unconscious imagery, between artistic discipline and freedom, and between the neo-realism of 1950s Italian cinema and the orgiastic flights of his later work.” So it’s an important film by a great filmmaker, but what else? What makes The Sweet Life so sweet? (Hint: The title might be slightly ironic!)
The praise: After winning the top prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, it was nominated for four Academy Awards: costume design (which it won), art direction, director, and writing. (Italy submitted another film, Kapo, for the foreign language category.) In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named it the sixth-greatest film of all time. Roger Ebert’s personal list of favorite films has it in fifth place.
The context: The Italian Neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, discussed in an earlier edition of What’s the Big Deal?, showed the somber realities of Italian life in the wake of World War II, i.e., people were poor and unemployed and were always having their bicycles stolen. A decade later, Italian society had been rebuilt — a little too much, perhaps. By the end of the 1950s, Rome had become a glamorous bastion of hedonism, defined by its nightlife and celebrity culture. In the U.S., songs like “That’s Amore,” “Mambo Italiano,” and “On an Evening in Roma,” by Italian-American idol Dean Martin, reflected Italy’s new trendiness, as did films like Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain.
It was time for a film to deconstruct the new Italy, and Fellini was the man for the job. Thanks to his string of commercially and critically successful films — I Vitelloni, La Strada, The Swindle, Nights of Cabiria — he had become a major celebrity himself. La Dolce Vita had its origins in Fellini’s own fame, in his frustration with the hollowness of modern society, and in the sudden loosening of Italy’s morals. Thanks to the celebrity-crazy culture Fellini was chronicling, the production of La Dolce Vita itself was plagued with gossip and paparazzi (though that term didn’t exist yet; see below).
The movie: Marcello (played by Fellini regular Marcello Mastroianni) is a writer whose work lies somewhere between journalism and celebrity gossip. He spends his evenings partying with the people he writes about, the movie stars and aristocrats of Rome. He has a fiancee, but he isn’t faithful to her. His life, as represented by the several nights depicted here, is shallow and unfulfilling, composed mostly of trudging from one party to the next.
What it influenced: Not everybody gets to add a word to the dictionary, but that’s what Fellini and co-writer Ennio Flaiano did with “paparazzo.” In the movie, Paparazzo is the name of a photographer who chases celebrities around. He behaves like … well, like a paparazzo. By the mid 1960s, “paparazzo” and its plural, “paparazzi,” had joined the lexicon. Today it is hard to imagine life without this very useful term, although it would be nice if we didn’t need it.
References to the film abound in other films. (Moviemakers love Fellini.) Lost in Translation duplicates the celebrity interview scene and later has two characters watching the film itself. Goodbye Lenin, Bee Season, and L.A. Story all imitate the scene where a statue of Jesus is carried by helicopter over the city, with a statue of Lenin, the letter “A,” and a hotdog stand, respectively. (Those three are the ones that come to mind. I’m sure there are others.) Woody Allen’s 1998 film Celebrity is a contemporary reworking of La Dolce Vita. In Ed Wood, the Jeffrey Jones character, Criswell, does the same trick of turning a napkin into a bra as Fanny does in Fellini’s film.
The Village Voice‘s Michael Atkinson wrote that “La Dolce Vita‘s welcome cynicism was powerfully influential, at least [in America] — open season was declared on official cultural industries in so many films (The Manchurian Candidate, Medium Cool, The Long Goodbye, Network, etc.) that it became an American new wave motif.”
In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas noted another way the film was influential. “La Dolce Vita is also one of the triumphs of have-it-both-ways filmmaking: Fellini reveals the emptiness, boredom and destructiveness of the Via Veneto existence while at the same time making it highly glamorous and seductive…. It is tempting to speculate that this film was crucial in giving birth to the contemporary media sensationalism that it reveals as lethally shallow. Marcello, surely, anticipates Geraldo [Rivera] and beyond.”
What to look for: I mentioned in my column about The Rules of the Game a few weeks ago that I was struck by how much La Dolce Vita resembles it. In both instances, the filmmaker depicts a decadent, ungrounded upper crust that can’t possibly last. And in both cases, the central character is someone who cavorts with the elite without actually, technically being one of them, and who is eventually slapped back to reality by a tragic turn of events.
At first blush, Marcello’s life is indeed sweet. Every night he wanders into a posh nightclub or a trendy restaurant, runs into an acquaintance, winds up at a party. Nothing ever seems planned. Life is free and spontaneous. That sounds fun … for a while. It’s been noted that La Dolce Vita takes place over seven nights (not all consecutive), and that maybe this correlates with the seven deadly sins, or the seven hills of Rome, or something else symbolic. But I think the more important reason for Fellini to include a week’s worth of festivities and debauchery is to show us how unsatisfying this lifestyle is. Seeing Marcello live it up for only a couple nights would produce envy in the viewer. Seeing him do it for seven has the opposite effect. We pity the emptiness of it all.
The film begins and ends with Marcello trying to hear someone who is calling to him from a distance. In both cases, when he can’t make out what’s being said, he shrugs it off and returns to whatever frivolous task he was engaged in. Marcello is not the only one searching for meaning. One sequence centers on a supposed sighting of the Virgin Mary in a small village. The locals are eager to find God — or Something, Anything — and thus to find purpose in life.
Another recurring motif is staircases and ladders. Marcello goes up and down a lot of them — mostly down. You don’t have to be Freud to see the symbolism (although being Freud probably wouldn’t hurt, if you happen to be him).
What’s the big deal: The word “timeless” is often thrown around carelessly, but rarely is it more apt than it is here. When La Dolce Vita was first released, the New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther called it “a brilliantly graphic estimation of a whole swath of society in sad decay and, eventually, a withering commentary upon the tragedy of the over-civilized.” In other words, it was a timely snapshot of the current Roman condition.
When it was re-released in 2004, writers marveled at how it seemed timely all over again. Kevin Thomas wrote that it “depicted, with a judicious mixture of satire and compassion, the world of celebrity, which has never been more avidly chronicled than right now, in supermarket tabloids, weekly entertainment magazines, TV shows and on the Internet.” Wesley Morris, in the Boston Globe: “The movie’s melancholy seems to fit uncannily well in the moment we find ourselves now.”
Melancholy is exactly right. I’ve seen the film three times, and each time I’ve come away feeling wistful; nostalgic for something I never experienced; touched by the poignant sadness that underlies Marcello’s existence.
I like Roger Ebert’s summary of the film’s timelessness best. In 1997, he wrote this:
Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom ‘the sweet life’ represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.
When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.
Further reading: There isn’t a lot to spoil about the film’s plot, but most of these articles do make casual reference to the Tragic Thing that occurs in it, which you might prefer not to know about beforehand.
Wheeler Winston Dixon, in addition to having an awesome name, wrote a splendid essay about the film for Senses of Cinema.
Ebert wrote a bit more about it in a blog entry not long ago, in which he mentions that while the film was at first condemned by the Catholic Church, he was later invited to present it to a group of film teachers who were nuns.
The other articles and reviews previously cited in this column are also worth your time, unless you have a crazy Roman party to get to or something.
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Eric D. Snider (website) lives a life that is semi-sweet, like chocolate chips.
Categories: No CategoriesTags: Fellini, La dolce vita, What's the big deal?