Sunday, July 17, 2011

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a would-be novelist forced to work as a journalist to pay the bills, is bounced about Rome and its surrounding areas on a series of romantic affairs and potential news stories. He seeks truth and love but more often than not finds misleading facades and exploitation. Essentially broken down into several episodes, La Dolce Vita finds Marcello rekindling a romance with a dissatisfied heiress (Anouk Aimée), escorting and attempting to seduce a vivacious Swedish actress (Anita Ekberg), covering a possible religious miracle, meeting with his aging father, and fraternizing with upper-class intellectuals, shallow partying aristocrats, and fun-loving entertainers in turn. Throughout these experiences his up-and-down relationship with his remarkably dedicated girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) crops up as well.

This is a tough one. I know there's no need to go into some long, in-depth analysis because a) many, many more talented and insightful writers have already done it and b) I don't really feel up to the task. So I'll just touch upon some points that stuck out to me.

To begin with, I do not think this is some great "masterpiece" of European cinema. Like so many films considered the best thing ever (often, sorry to say it, by older white dudes), I enjoyed it but wasn't especially affected or impressed. While it features a range of interesting female characters (more on them later), it's centered around a charming asshole who is likely meant to be more sympathetic than I found him. There are so many scenes with self-indulgent, pompous rich people who think they're smarter than they actually are, it's a bit taxing. I absolutely hated the final party scene, regardless of its importance for showing how the lead character had slipped far from his initial aspirations and friendship circles. Also, the episodic nature of the film was a little offputting, mainly because I wasn't expecting it. It's not that it's a boring movie, but it's extremely long (about 3 hours) and with little over-arching storyline to keep the pacing in check I felt like I couldn't find my footing.

HOWEVER, for the most part I enjoyed La Dolce Vita. It's beautifully shot, well-acted, and engaging in an easygoing, slice-of-life way. I liked the focus on sensationalistic writers and photographers, with the ever-present wild-eyed gangs of journalists hungry for a story. There are some great conversations from the various characters Marcello meets, discussing different outlooks on love, life, and creativity. Mastroianni is playing a self-absorbed womanizer, but somehow his charisma and affable demeanor manage to make the character likable enough that I didn't mind following him around for 3 hours. He has these great moments of simple, straightforward confession or observation that allow the struggling writer inside to break through the jaded, sex-obsessed man-about-town. At times I would forget that he drove his unstable girlfriend (fiancee?) to attempt suicide and continued to treat her like shit afterward (why doesn't he just break up with her if he wants to be with other women? UNCLEAR).

Anouk Aimée is the best part, duh, with her independent spirit and unapologetic sexual appetite, though I preferred her slightly androgynous, bespectacled look in 8 1/2 more than her big hair here. Anita Ekberg is memorable as the buxom Sylvia, with an energy and sensuality that captivates all around her. I enjoyed Alain Cuny as Marcello's quiet intellectual friend Steiner as well- his dark subplot is fascinating, and results in a completely unexpected turning point for Marcello's adventures.

Ok. La Dolce Vita. An Important Film. For the most part I liked it, though I feel it would have worked better as a short film series, and I take some umbrage with the way some of the women are depicted (especially Emma, who is just this one-dimensional, over-emotional homemaker who follows Marcello around like a well-trained puppy dog, it's ridiculous. Is it too much to write a girlfriend character with some self-respect?). I appreciated that Fellini doesn't try too hard to fit the film into any one genre, with little in the way of extreme drama, romance, or comedy, but rather a more subdued look at one man. It is at times indulgent and sexual, at others introspective and observant, and my opinions will likely benefit from multiple viewings. Can't see that happening any time soon, though.


Pair This Movie With: Oh jeez it's so long I don't know if you'd have the stamina for a second film! I guess if you took a break in between this might go well with a Wes Anderson or Sofia Coppola feature. You know, some "privileged white people have problems, too" type of movie. Or 8 1/2, another Fellini film in which Marcello Mastroianni tries to figure out his place in life with the help of numerous attractive women.


  1. I was fortunate to see the film back in 2004 at a screening for the film in its new print at the time. It was definitely one of the best film experiences I had. In fact, I've managed to own the 3-disc collector's edition of the film that I got at my old used CD/DVD store for half the price it was originally sold for. It's one of my cinematic treasures.

  2. It's been a while since I last saw this but I don't think Marcello is supposed to be taken as a sympathetic character by any stretch of the imagination (there's a cool version of him which says more about his character in this in the third of Kim Newman's excellent Anno Dracula series of novels).

    I believe the dead, decaying whale on the beach at the end is Marcello and his "friends" and the waitress at the end represents his salvation... but he's too far gone to see that and instead he takes the decaying whale?

  3. Agreed. It's a movie you feel bad about criticising for fear of being the odd one out. I've only seen it once, probably ten years ago, but I know full well that I'm unlikely to willingly watch it again.

  4. you just have to be in the right mood for this, it's tough to know there's still 120 minutes left of a slice of life drama when you're already 60 minutes in.

    you're right it is incredibly well shot but i would say it's not for me. i can't imagine watching it repeatedly for example.

  5. Alex I applaud your critique of this film. It has a few memorable scenes, but is more of a time-capsule piece in my opinion- of its time but has not stood up well. I've always found Fellini to be one of the top 5 most overrated directors of all time. I'm not sure why, I just have never connected with most of his stuff, 8 1/2 not withstanding. I do like that one alot. But, the rest of his films I find very uneven.

  6. I definitely understand how La Dolce Vita can be a difficult and none too enjoyable film. It's exhausting, depressing, and goes on forever. Still, as a depiction of mid-century ennui and a cornerstone of Fellini's filmography, I think everything should see it at least once.

    It might also go well with the similarly tiring trilogy that Antonioni was making around the same time. The characters are often frustrating or even unbearable, but Fellini & Antonioni's very different visual styles are both crucial parts of the early '60s European art cinema, and influenced so much of what indie cinema has to offer today (like Coppola and Anderson, as you mention!).

    For more pleasurable Fellini I'd go with La Strada -- a lot purer and shorter, almost like a fable. And 8 1/2, as you say, which is just incredible. Though all of his masterpieces show, as you say, Fellini's very troubled & complicated attitudes toward his female characters. Now there's a case study...

    (My post on favorite images from La Dolce Vita: