La Dolce Vita is a powerful and profound work by the great director Federico Fellini. The film follows a series of events in the life of a journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) which explore his dissatisfaction in his work and his loves, ultimately a reflection on where one finds – or fails to find – meaning in life.
The setting is Rome in the 1950’s where Marcello covers the more sensational side of the news – movie stars, religious visions, the decadent aristocracy. Fellini’s gift for the highly theatrical image is evident throughout. The opening take of a helicopter conveying a statue of Jesus through the skies of Rome, over the ruins of the Coliseum, over a group of women sunbathing at the swimming pool of a modern apartment complex, and on to St. Peter’s is brilliant. Fellini presents to us, before a word of dialogue is spoken, the presence of religious values and the Catholic church, the earlier pagan culture, contemporary sybaritic life, failures of communication.
Marcello is living with Emma, a woman who loves him and wants a traditional marriage, but she is possessive and shows little ability to understand his unarticulated search for value and meaning in his life. He has encounters with other women – Anouk Aimee as a stunningly beautiful, wealthy, and jaded friend/lover; Anita Ekberg as an American movie star, also beautiful and alluringly sexy in a simple, mindless way. Marcello briefly meets an unspoiled and charming girl from the country working at a beachside restaurant. In the final scene of the film, they meet again at the beach, separated physically by the tides, separated emotionally by his now defeated cynicism and her innocence.
Fellini explores religious fervor as Marcello covers a claimed sighting of the Virgin by two children. He explores Marcello’s relationship with his father in a nicely bittersweet sequence. And he explores the life of intellect at a party given by Marcello’s friend Steiner, a party attended by artists, poets, philosophers. In this episode, Fellini pokes fun at intellectual pretension, but he also gives Steiner an important monologue:
Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weighs 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….detached.
Steiner, who has a loving family, money, success, creative friends, is thus suffering the same anomie in which Marcello is trapped. In part it reflects the East/West conflict of that time, when the threat of nuclear holocaust seemed more threatening and played a moresignificant part in day-to-day consciousness than it does today. But, more universally, in the context of the film, it is a meditation on mortality and art and love. Later in the film, Marcello returns to Steiner’s apartment: Steiner has shot his children and committed suicide. His ultimate expression of despair, the inability of this paragon to love enough, pushes Marcello over the edge. Instead of moving from journalism to the higher realm of writing he contemplated, he sells out to become a public relations hack, a drunk, a decadent party boy, now within the milieu that he previously saw as the outsider, the reporter observing.
Fellini provides a wealth of image and incident as he draws to a pessimistic and melancholy conclusion. La Dolce Vita may not have the tightness and economy hoped for in a great work (the videotape runs nearly three hours), but it is never boring, it is rich in intelligent observation, and it shares some wisdom without being preachy, always with Fellini’s gift for entertaining and amusing.