CAPSULE: LA DOLCE VITA (1960)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Magali Noel, , Alain Cuny, Walter Santesso, Anita Ekberg

PLOT: Several episodes follow Marcello, a writer who has been seduced into gossip journalism and a world of endless parties and women, as he discovers the emptiness of his life.

Still from La Dolce Vita (1960)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: La Dolce Vita isn’t much of a “weird” movie on its own, but it’s a significant film in the weird canon because it marks the bridge between Felini’s early neorealist movies and the symbolist/Surrealist work that begins in earnest in 8 1/2 (1963).

COMMENTS: The very first image of La Dolce Vita is a statue of Jesus being flown by helicopter past crumbling Roman aqueducts. Fellini’s symbolism is shockingly direct, but clear: the old Classical world lies in ruins, and the Christian world that superseded it is now being replaced by a modern mechanical order. The helicopter flies past modern Roman skyscrapers and buzzes a rooftop where women in bikinis are sunbathing. The journalist Marcello, tailing the first helicopter in hopes of tracking down a good story, is distracted by the site of the excited women, who are waving at his own whirlybird; he tries to get their phone numbers, but can’t communicate over the hum of the rotors.

The icons of the old order that gave life meaning have been flown away, but what will replace them as society’s organizing principle? When people have overthrown their idols of old, Fellini suggests, they instead idolize idealized demigods: the beautiful, the debonair, the rich, the busty. Marcello (and his crony Paparazzo, whose character name came to signify a species of annoying celebrity photographer) are priests of the modern order, moving within the circles of the rich and famous and bringing tales of their exploits back to the masses hungry to live vicariously through them. Although he has talent and insight, Marcello himself is seduced by the shallow attractions of pretty people, embodied in the flighty Swedish bombshell portrayed by Anita Ekberg. Ekeberg’s nocturnal dip in Trevi fountain is the movie’s most treasured gift to cinephiles, but what’s sometimes forgotten is the magical realist moment when, as Marcello seems just about to kiss her and achieve his desire, the fountain stops flowing—Ekberg’s celebrity sex magic breaks it, or at least renders its ancient flow superfluous.

La Dolce Vita is not simply a critique of the pleasure-seeking upper classes in Rome at the dawn of the 1960s. The movie is an assault on modernity itself, on a world in which meaning has been flown away by helicopter, probably to make room for a new nightclub. It is not, as it might seem on the surface, simply that Marcello culpably fails to find fulfillment because he favors the shallow pleasures of the sweet life over serious artistic refection. The suggestion is rather that finding purpose in the depraved modern world is impossible. Fellini meticulously cuts off all avenues of escape from meaninglessness. With the spectacle of the two children who tow masses of eager reporters and pilgrims back and forth looking for the Virgin only they can see, modern religion is painted as a fraud and a sideshow that no longer feeds the spiritual hunger of the people. Marcello’s friend Steiner appears to be the apotheosis of modern man, a role model for the lost journalist. He lives apart from the madness of the crowds in the street, contemplating art and philosophy in his salon with his loving family and the circle of artists and intellectuals who attend dinner parties where they pass the evenings in witty conversation. But even Steiner is beaten down by the inescapable melancholy of modernity. He is only temporarily protecting himself from corruption by withdrawing from the tarnished world; he cannot find true fulfillment in it. “The most miserable life is better, believe me, than an existence protected by a society where everything’s organized and planned for and perfect,” he sighs with weary wisdom. Meanwhile, Marcello’s transvestite drinking buddy prophesies, “by 1965 there will be complete depravity. How squalid everything will be!”

La Dolce Vita can be criticized for overindulgence: some of the scenes go on for too long after their significance has been grasped. But there is so much to treasure in the performances, imagery, cinematography, the Roman scenery, and Nino Rota’s elegant score that the draggy passages are easily overlooked in hindsight. La Dolce Vita has gravitas. It is one of the few movies that takes a place not only in film history, but as a part of the great conversation of Western civilization.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the stylish cinematography and Fellini’s bizarre, extravagant visuals are absolutely riveting. “–Time Out London (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by John Gordon. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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