La Dolce Vita – Jumping in the Deep End

Wow. So apparently, we’re starting with the big guns: Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Synopsis: Journalist and man-about-town Marcello struggles to find his place in the world, torn between the allure of Rome’s elite social scene and the stifling domesticity offered by his girlfriend, all the while searching for a way to become a serious writer (credit to Jeff Lewis).

To date, my vast Fellini exposure consists of viewing 8 1/2 thirteen years ago. What do I recall? Some strange circus visuals (is that even right?), and the sensation that I had no idea what was going on. Granted, I was still a teenager and just beginning to expand my cinematic horizons (I think watching 8 1/2 validated my status as a newbie film buff in my adolescent mind). It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it; it’s just that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take from it.

So, thirteen years older, wiser, more experienced… we can imagine La Dolce Vita was a more enlightening experience, right? Yes and no. Yea and nay. Here’s the thing – does anyone completely understand a Fellini movie on first viewing? Or on 12th viewing? Is that just a rationalization to save my fragile ego?

I can’t say I understood La Dolce Vita. I understood parts of it. Obviously, there were prominent themes of love, but that’s akin to saying there are themes of salvation in The Shawshank Redemption. Thanks, Captain Obvious. Every so often, a character spouts off about the virtues and importance of love in a full life. We get it Fellini, love is the best. I was much more intrigued by the exploration of reality and fantasy (if I remember correctly, also present in 8 1/2). For example, Steiner’s speech regarding the illusion of happiness in his perfect life, and the value in a miserable existence. Fellini provides a stunning visual example, when Marcello and Sylvia have a moment with the lights and beauty of Trevi fountain serving as a dazzling backdrop, only to have the fountain extinguish; the camera pulls back to reveal the mundane life going on about them, including a pizza delivery boy watching their interlude.We also see the theme play out in Marcello’s endless pursuit of female playthings, each of whom he loves dearly while he is with her; as pointed out by Emma, he imagines women are love (or in my interpretation, lust is love). In reality, Marcello is not genuinely connected to anyone.  Apparently, Fellini also cast real-life counterparts for the background characters, from nobility to drag performers, blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality in a practical sense.

I didn’t expect to fully comprehend La Dolce Vita after one viewing. In fact, I didn’t expect to comprehend it at all. The power of Fellini, as I discovered, is that the dialogue and “narrative” is often overshadowed by the compelling visuals. I am staunchly pro-subtitle (*shudder* I detest dubbing), but this was a rare case; I found myself wishing it was dubbed so I didn’t have to continually peel my eyes away from the screen. His work is visual art. The placement of every person in each frame is so meticulously staged, the use of the camera so precise. And let’s not forget the people. Fellini stocked his film with stunning individuals, particularly Anita Ekberg. I love my hostage, but I’d totally tap that. Wow. Swedish women in the 60s knew how to rock some curves!

Overall, I found La Dolce Vita to be remarkably accessible. Perhaps my memory is tricking me fiercely (always a significant possibility), but I recall 8 1/2 as much more surreal and confusing. La Dolce Vita seemed downright linear! Keep in mind though, I mean that relatively. The narrative still seemed almost stream-of-consciousness to me. Often we find our protagonist floating through the film, going along with whatever action is unfolding on screen. A good example of this is near the end as Marcello is looking intently for Maddalena, but is easily swept up on the ghost hunt and diverted onto a new path. I had a similar experience while watching The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; it seemed as though the characters were following the movie rather than the other way around.

Thus ends my experience of La Dolce Vita… for now. I’m sure repeated viewings will  inform my current theories regarding the film and reveal new themes I did not initially consider. Not being a religious person myself, I’m sure the mounds of religious imagery and references went over my head. I mean, the film starts with the transportation of a giant statue of Jesus; it’s safe to say religion plays a prominent role. There were also many references to and scenes involving food. Seeing as food is one of my all time favourite things, I’d be interested in exploring what food means to Fellini and how he uses it in his films. Mmmmm… food.

Favourite Scene – The trumpeter and his balloons, for the sheer whimsy

Key Quote – Transvestite: By 1965 there’ll be total depravity. How squalid everything will be.

WTF Moment – Sylvia’s faun-esque friend (who also reminded me of the devil) and his ridiculous dancing at the party

Till next time,


~ by K. Harker on November 14, 2010.

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