Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is one of those “must see” cinematic milestones that somehow I never got around to watching until now. Why did it take so long? Partly because it is a rambling, nearly three-hour excursion into a world and way of life that never interested me much, rendered even more remote by the passage of time. Not remote in the manner of Fellini’s later, overtly stylized films, however. In fact, the film provides a relatively Realistic evocation of upper-crust Roman society c. 1960 as it follows journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) through a hothouse world of aimless, shameless hedonism.
In the most famous of several vivid episodes, Marcello traipses around Rome’s tourist traps with a visiting Hollywood sex goddess (Anita Ekberg). Sylvia is just one of the many women with whom Marcello (briefly) thinks he has fallen in love, but Ekberg’s combination of ripe flesh and inane innocence makes their one night together winningly charming, almost like a fairy tale with a dirty-minded flirt at the center.
Even Sylvia’s scenes, however, are not entirely free of moralizing. One flamboyant exhibition after another unrolls with no apparent unifying thread beyond emptiness and Marcello. Knowing and known by everyone, he mingles parasitically among the rich and sensation-seeking. Fellini glides effortlessly with him from one showy spectacle to another, and if nothing else La Dolce Vita demonstrates peerless film making prowess. A lengthy sequence about two children who claim to have seen the Madonna, for example, moves from the deceptive simplicity of Marcello driving a car with his girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) and sidekick Paparazzo (Walter Santesso) into an ever more complex, nearly overpowering jumble of confused crowds, traffic and pouring rain. Fellini handles all the chaos with an almost casual aplomb.
In the midst of this circus, Mastroianni holds our attention, if not our sympathy, even if Marcello is as morally exhausted as the poseurs around him. Certainly smart, possibly talented, Marcello is there to provide our entry ticket into “the sweet life,” thereby delivering the central, hypocritical purpose of moralistic art, to experience vicariously the sins and failings of those lucky enough to enjoy the kicks in reality, while presumably keeping to the moral high ground.
The message seems to be that if only Marcello would settle down, like Emma wants him to, everything would fall into place. That she is the film’s most tiresome character blunts the conformist message somewhat, but not enough to maintain interest in repetitive and increasingly mannered demonstrations of lives floating on froth. Their scenes together are “realistic” in the worst sense, all too believable demonstrations of incompatibility exacerbated by emotional interdependence.
By the end, Marcello looks ragged as a cigarette butt with a future promising little better than further decline. The sour aftertaste may be intentional, and La Dolce Vita’s reputation for brilliance is warranted, but it is unlikely to be remembered by anyone with much affection.