Thoughts on La Dolce Vita

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space - were it not that I have bad dreams. Hamlet
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.

Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weigh upon me. Peace frightens me; perhaps I fear it most of all. I feel it is only a facade hiding the face of hell. I think, ‘What is in store for my children tomorrow?’ ‘The world will be wonderful’, they say. But from whose viewpoint? If one phone call could announce the end of everything? We need to live in a state of suspended animation like a work of art, in a state of enchantment. We have to succeed in loving so greatly that we live outside of time, detached.”

Cinema gives us the ability to frame moments of beauty and passion and replay them again and again – but only by creating and staging them in the first place. Is there any such thing as an authentic life that is a beautiful work of art? Or must all beauty carry within itself the corollary that it is the product of artifice?

Is this why Steiner finds his life unbearable?


Rather bizarrely, we watched this on a DVD that had been given away with the Daily Mail years ago, harvested from John’s parents’ home.

I’m really glad I was almost completely ignorant of this movie before watching. It meant that I went in blind to all the moral judgements others had made on the characters, particularly Marcello. Although he works in a shitty job and does some very shitty things, right from the start of the movie, I never felt he was completely beyond redemption. So although the movie has satirical elements, and definitely a satirical character, I saw it as a tragicomedy (or perhaps a Divine Comedy), with some clear decision points for Marcello, and therefore it had dramatic tension.

Another example – according to Philip French, Maddelena is a nyphomaniac. Well, that might be true, though her behaviour doesn’t seem noticeably more promiscuous than that of others in her set. I saw her rather as a privileged woman suffering from crippling ennui, hungry for any new experience, including slumming it in a prostitute’s bedroom. It seems to me that she is a balance to Emma, who is romantically deluded, thinking that she can save Marcello through her devoted, maternal love. Clearly that is a non-starter, given the kind of man he is, and in fact her behaviour is smothering and controlling. I didn’t feel that Fellini was presenting Emma in a particularly attractive light.

Maddelena is more complex. With all her faults, she can touch a nerve in Marcello that few others can reach. What he loves in her is her total lack of illusions. Even while she is proposing marriage to him, she’s flirting with someone else. He doesn’t see this happening (though you wonder if he suspects), so he is free to imbue her with whatever ideal qualities he needs. But to call her his Beatrice is reductive in the extreme. He would like her to be his Beatrice, but he knows she never would be. In fact a recurring theme of the whole film is Marcello experimenting with different kinds of womanhood, and rejecting them all. Other archetypal females are Sylvia, Steiner’s wife, Nico, Fanny (the Kit-Kat hostess) and possibly even Nadia – there are also a couple of archetypal cultured women (interestingly neither are Italian). They are all possibilities, but ultimately he rejects them.

That leaves Paula, his little Umbrian angel from the sunlit cafe. I do think Fellini may be setting her up as a genuine alternative to the cynicism and sensation-seeking of Marcello’s milieu. She remains an innocent, a pure and natural template on which anything could be engraved. She still takes a simple delight in pleasures like a piece of catchy pop music (later used very differently as the background to Nadia’s striptease). She appears in one of the few scenes shot in the full light of day (this is very much a movie of long nights and weary dawn scenes). She appears as Marcello is trying to write, making at least a gesture towards what Steiner believes his true vocation to be.

And we see her in the film’s last frame, smiling enigmatically, Madonna-like. It’s inconceivable that we shouldn’t connect this to the film’s opening scene. Considered blasphemous by the Catholic Church at the time of the movie’s release, this showed a Christ statue being airlifted over Rome, holding out its hands in apparent benediction. But Christ was pursued by a helicopter containing Marcello and Paparazzi, and the noise of the rotor blades made communication impossible. We saw the world of the trivial and the depraved in pursuit of the holy and the ideal. The last scene echoes this set up, but now the fish (an old emblem of Christianity) is an enormous, stinking, three-day-old corpse. And Marcello cannot hear what Paula is saying; her words are blown away and lost in the crashing of the waves, so ultimately he returns to the battered crowd of revellers and turns his back on her.

What are we to make of Steiner, who appears to represent everything worthy and desirable in the pursuit of a meaningful life? Steiner has it all – wealth, a beautiful home, gorgeous children, devoted wife, interesting friends and cultural authority. But he can’t enjoy it. He is tormented – by the past (World War II – there are searchlights outside his balcony?), by the future (nuclear Armageddon?) or just by existential angst?  Whatever the answer, his demons pursue him until he shoots himself and his gorgeous children, and in a particularly tragic scene (with an undertow of dark comedy) his wife becomes a commodity pursued by Marcello and his band of paparazzi – and at first she’s flattered (“Are you turning me into a film star?”) before she senses the terrible truth.

Peter denies Christ three times. Marcello has three – or possibly four – opportunities to turn his life around:

1 the “truth scene” with Madellena

2 when he reaches out for connection with his father

3 when he breaks up with Emma (this one is the most ambivalent, I feel)

4 when he is complicit in the reporting of Steiner’s suicide

Most if not all of these come with huge caveats. The third in particular is probably a complete illusion (interestingly, it’s the only one where we witness him changing his mind). All are presented with a dark mirror. Immediately after (1) we have a ghostly mock-wedding procession breaking into a church that almost became a brothel. In (2), the hottie that Marcello lines up for his dad almost ends up killing him, as if to remind us that once youth is gone, it is futile to try to recapture it. (3) is so full of contradictions that there is no need for any subtext, although I still find the presence of a blinding floodlight interesting. And (4) carries its own heart of darkness into an apparently perfect set up.

In all these scenes, there’s use of silence and space, and that contrasts with the movie’s generally noisy and frenetic world. Normally, there are too many people around, too much going on, for any real human communion to take place, and you get the sense that most of the characters are actively avoiding it. And the framing first and final scenes both use the contrast between space and supposed “civilisation” to make a satirical point about affluent society and its discontents.

What came over most strongly to me was how beautiful the film was to look at, as if it carried the DNA of every James Bond movie, every Avengers episode, every Martini advert of the 1960s (perhaps it did). You could imagine that anyone wanting to portray sophisticated people in a movie for at least the next 10 years would have aspired to make them look like they do La Dolce Vita. And that is what makes it such an honest movie – it shows us how attractive excess can be.

Every scene carries a weight of conflicting metaphors. A church can be a brothel. A popped balloon can become a smashed plate. Again and again there is the still, small, wordless voice of pathos invading scenes of feasting and success. When the showgirls take a break, onto the dance floor comes an incredibly beautiful, Chaplinesque comic trumpeter, and although he plays badly, he pulls all the balloons away with him and makes the onlookers cry, without really knowing why. In a world of lies, the truth cuts like a knife.



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