“I’m too serious to be a dilettante and too much a dabbler to be a professional.”
If you measure the quality of films by their cultural influence, then Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is an unsurpassed achievement in cinema. Aptly set in Rome, the story follows the hectic hedonism of Marcello, a gossip journalist, as he schmoozes with the rich and famous. The film’s cultural outreach when it was first released was so resonant that it even provided the origins of the word ‘paparazzi’, inspired by the character Paparazzo and his intrusive work as a photographer. The winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, La Dolce Vita is all about the seductive power and unfulfilling distractions of indulgence. Visually stunning, Fellini gives us a portrait of the dizzying world of parties, aristocratic luxury, and a celebrity-obsessed condition which New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther described as the “tragedy of the over-civilised”.
The film presents a series of short episodes which culminate in a narrative about the difficult relationship between immediate pleasure and underlying happiness. Marcello’s personal troubles reflect a cultural shift in the 1950s which glamorously celebrated economic boom in the aftermath of war. The opening scene offers a sweeping aerial shot of a helicopter carrying a plaster statue of Christ across Rome. The audience is confronted with the conquering image and pulsating sound of a new Italy, hinting at a collective obsession with cultural ownership and decadence. Marcello, for his part, is not solely occupied with raw desires for sex and money – he actually wants to leave his marriage for its self-perceived “animalism” – but he places some faith in the potential for extravagant impulses to lead to a better life. He has a loving wife, a successful career, and exclusive access to the rich and famous. But he’s looking for more. He can’t get satisfaction from life. So he allows himself to be swept away by fluctuating infatuation and the consumer lifestyle.
Mastroianni is exceptional as the afflicted protagonist. Right from the start, he commands attention with his charming smile and alluring sense of amusement. But he quickly suggests much more than a façade of self-confidence: his worried expressions reveal a pensive anxiety and inner pain about his unquenchable ambitions. By the end of the film, we see every dimension of the human condition in poor Marcello. He moves effortlessly from a quick-witted Romeo to a detached bedroom philosopher, from a painfully aggressive husband to a weary partygoer. His exhausting dabbling with delirium leaves him bereft and removed from the elusive sweet life. There are too many great scenes to adequately address here, but I will lightly touch on two important foils: Sylvia and Steiner.
Sylvia, played by Anita Ekberg, is basically Anita Ekberg: a Swedish-American movie star who swings by Rome for the press. After a day of exploration and a night of rowdy partying, Sylvia and Marcello walk aimlessly around the streets of Rome until they end up wading in the Trevi fountain. Marcello’s infatuation with Sylvia is absolute. She’s stunningly portrayed as the perfect personification of beauty. But the film’s narrative pattern, which alternates between evening and dawn, suddenly intervenes. The arrival of morning ends the night’s romantic appeal and sends Sylvia back to her hotel without experiencing the cathartic, luscious, extravagant kiss we’re waiting for. She’s interested in Marcello, but all he represents for her is a flirtatious, temporary affair. For Marcello, Sylvia is something much more meaningful, but she’s tantalisingly out of reach. She defines what his aspirational lifestyle becomes: wonderfully promising, but incomplete and unsatisfying.
Fellini adds the more tragic story of Steiner, an envied worldly expert, to communicate Marcello’s worries. Steiner is kind, compassionate, all-knowing. He lives the intellectual, artistic life Marcello sincerely longs for. And it’s easy to be intoxicated by his bravado of brilliance – we see him playing Bach on a church organ and hosting an impressive party of cashed-up art aficionados – and we come to identify him as a sort of renaissance man. Yet Steiner complains of a dissatisfaction with everything. Although he’s universally admired and has a beautiful family, Steiner considers his experience of life flimsy and hollow, confessing to Marcello that peace “frightens” him. He wants to move beyond passion and desire to some otherworldly lifestyle which is difficult to grasp. The lasting tragedy of the film, Steiner’s unexpected and chilling suicide, leaves his wife at the mercy of Paparazzo and reveals his profound personal anguish. Marcello wonders whether his goals in life – everything Steiner represented – are really worth pursuing.
The final scenes show us a dreadfully dreary Marcello. Stumbling onto a beach after a clumsily executed party, he admires the glaring eyes of a stingray washed up on the Italian shore. After all of his cavorting, you might think of him as a whining, ungrateful fool, but it’s fairer to see him as a victim – a victim of a domineering culture which fails to live up to its self-raising expectations. A snippet of Steiner’s most eloquent monologue captures the film’s ideas far better my brief appraisal, so I’ll leave you with this: “Even the most miserable life is better than a sheltered existence in an organised society where everything is calculated and perfected.”