La dolce vita: Tuxedos at Dawn

On Film / Essays — Oct 21, 2014

To savor Federico Fellini it may be worthwhile to temporarily spurn him. We come to him in youth, rosily impressionable, hungry for allegory, susceptible to the idea of life as a circus, complete with and even dominated by a freak show. But then we must disown him like a shameful memory: the grandiosity, nostalgia, and hallucinations; the promenade of lanky, bosomy, and Chaplinesque women; the transvestites and gargoyles—so that later we can, with trepidation and longing, confront again the colorful ringmaster from Rimini and his forty-year pilgrimage in cinema, and find that we were right the first time, that Fellini really is an artist for most seasons.

His best films live and breathe and morph, none more so than the picaresque La dolce vita (1960), which may be his most nearly perfect, astutely rueful, least sentimental work: an improbably entertaining, three-hour tragicomedy about people frantically trying, without much success, to stay entertained. One of the most prescient of all films, it now triggers a different set of keywords than it did in the early 1960s. Back then, it invited us to deplore the exhibition of the rich and depraved, while encouraging us to join them on the Via Veneto. After a dozen years of neorealism, which cataloged the privations of postwar Italy, Fellini reinvented Rome as a caravan of dreams or nightmares, debauched, pathetic, yet perfidiously appealing, a tourist attraction and also a recruitment station for the inferno.

Today the film’s revolutionary purview may appear tame, especially themes that rankled the church and bluenoses: moral decay, moneyed monotony, religious irreverence, loveless coupling. Detractors complain that the film isn’t shocking anymore—that time has reduced it to little more than a fascinating souvenir of another day. In truth, it now seems more shocking, or rather shocking in a more profound way. Time has sustained La dolce vita, setting loose themes that underscore twenty-first-century dilemmas that were of little or no consequence in 1960. Just as we are more likely now to register how funny it is and how tidily structured, we can hardly fail to see how it augurs our obsessions with the loss of privacy and the rise of virtuality, the deadening of the senses and the addiction to technology, the corruption of media, the lust for fame, and the waning of lust when acculturation trumps individual agency. It is now a more humanistic film too, because, having been there and done much of that, we know its people more intimately than did the first generation of viewers, who were gawkers at and not survivors of the spectacle.

It continues to speak to us in part because, for all Fellini’s inventiveness, La dolce vita remained true to his peculiar take on the verism that defined his apprenticeship. Bumptious with aspiration and with no particularly evident talent beyond drawing, Fellini had escaped the purgatorial seaside province of Rimini and found work in Florence illustrating comic strips, which led to a trek through the Italian countryside as a dogsbody in a vaudeville troupe—painting stage flats, playing bits, writing sketches—until an opportunity to write movie gags brought him to Rome in 1942. It was a laborious time for comedy, but he made his way, married the actor and avatar of the Felliniesque Giulietta Masina, and attracted the interest of Roberto Rossellini, who enlisted him for Rome Open City and Paisan. Given the chance to direct in 1950, he quickly brought his own neo to realism, breaking with documentary precision in favor of anomalous details, grotesquerie, farce, poetry, allusion, symbolism. He achieved global recognition for idylls of outsiders (I vitelloni, La strada, Nights of Cabiria), while personally crashing the epicenter of Roman high society. His nose no longer pressed to the glass, he now turned his camera and klieg lights on the elite whose company he had coveted. The nuns of Rimini ought to have approved.

Most critics did. They hailed Fellini’s bold and easily read symbols as well as his sociological critique. Bosley Crowther, in the New York Times, called it “a withering commentary upon the tragedy of the overcivilized.” (A million New Yorkers choked on their coffee: were they overcivilized, undercivilized, civilized just right?) In a year renowned for discombobulating cinema, New Wavy (Breathless, Shoot the Piano Player ) and horrific (Psycho, Peeping Tom), La dolce vita seduced the intelligentsia and public alike. Cannes gave it the Palme d’Or, but not without reservations. Crowther reported, “Boos and whistles outweighed the light fusillade of conventional applause as Signor Fellini mounted the red, plushly decorated stage to receive the prize.” Old festival hands, he observed, complained of lean pickings—1960 “had not been one of the better festival years.” The rival contestants included L’avventura, The Virgin Spring, and Ballad of a Soldier. When it crossed the Atlantic in 1961, La dolce vita became, despite subtitles, the sixth top-grossing film in America, earning twice the receipts of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which sweetened its own, somewhat similar reproofs with a croony theme song and happy ending.

La dolce vita altered the look, style, and expanse of movies, popularizing overdressed Euro-chic ennui, deflating the pneumatic concupiscence of bombshell film queens, urbanizing the garden of earthly delights, and setting them to warped cabaret music. Movies were soon rife with Americans spending two weeks in another town, usually Rome. Alfred Hitchcock appropriated the sequence of Anita Ekberg wading in Trevi Fountain as backstory for The Birds. Bob Dylan rhymed La dolce vita and Rita in “Motorpsycho Nightmare.” Everyone learned how to say “the sweet life” in Italian, while the proliferating roach colony of tabloid photographers was baptized forevermore with a neologism coined from the name of the protagonist’s colleague Paparazzo (a name Fellini borrowed from a tavern keeper in George Gissing’s 1901 travel memoir of Southern Italy). The role of the handsome, genial, feckless, doomed protagonist Marcello Rubini launched Marcello Mastroianni into international stardom.

*****

In his essay on Nights of Cabiria, André Bazin focused on the originality of Fellini’s episodic approach to screenwriting, observing that “events do not ‘happen’ in Fellini’s world; they ‘befall’ its inhabitants . . . As for the characters themselves, they exist and change only in reference to a purely internal kind of time.” Bazin died fifteen months before La dolce vita debuted, yet he might have been thinking specifically about Marcello when he wrote that the Fellini hero “does not develop; he is transformed, overturning finally like an iceberg whose center of buoyancy has shifted unseen.” The revelation of character through discrete installments is at least as old as Cervantes. Before Fellini, however, cinema—including Italian neorealism—usually conformed to the three-act formula of conflict, struggle, and resolution.

Fellini’s approach to narrative is audacious and expansive. His script, cowritten with three longtime collaborators—Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, and Brunello Rondi—proclaims its flaring innovation in a big-top accretion of incidents mapped out in a skillfully unified design of interrelated short stories with parallel configurations and ellipses. It consists of fifty scenes that combine to tell seven stories, between fourteen and thirty minutes long, plus prologue, three shorter interludes, and l’envoi. Each of the stories is structured along the lines of a diptych involving a nighttime escapade and a vanquishing dawn. Given this intricacy, a brief structural and interpretive breakdown may be useful, though it can only hint at the multiplicity of themes, the way they connect and reverberate, and the sheer pluck, the stylistic impudence of the entire venture—a wicked carousel of a movie. After the opening credits, which are scored to an unexpected Asian-Italian theme, complete with gong, by the indispensable Fellini collaborator Nino Rota, a breakdown might go like this:

1. Prologue. A film about a journalist ought to have a great lede, and La dolce vita has one of the best in film history. A magnificent wide shot of two helicopters whirring past the decrepit Aqua Claudia aqueduct like aliens patrolling a ruined world. One transports Christ the Laborer, swinging below its landing skids, and the other Marcello (described in the published script as “handsome, but softened by easy work and easy living”) and Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), covering the statue’s delivery to St. Peter’s. Marcello cannot hear the shouting sunbathers below; nor will he hear the girl shouting on the beach at the film’s close. These shots convey the I-am-a-camera self-consciousness of the movie, and the technology motif, not least as regards means of transport.

2. First story. Marcello, the faux writer whoring as a gossip columnist, rebounds between his rich, beautiful, willful lover, Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), and his earthy, possessive, suicidal mistress, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), with the assist of a prostitute who is an excellent host. The abrupt cut from the prologue to the masked Siamese dancers (portended by Rota’s music) is startling, but not as funny as the rock-and-roll version of “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me”—or the bar girl twirling a string of pearls as though it were a lasso. The thug who tries to intimidate Marcello seems clairvoyantly gallant today, defending privacy rights: by his lights, Marcello is nothing more than an informer intruding on a harmless adultery.

3. Second story. Marcello’s misguided romancing of the Swedish movie star Sylvia (Ekberg), the longest and best remembered sequence, is played with heavy-handed satire and has several deft comic moments, notably, a Trevi Fountain kiss that never happens, a tarmac pizza, Sylvia racing up the steps of St. Peter’s like it’s the prow of a ship, and the proto–bar mitzvah band that switches from “Arrivederci, Roma” to rock and roll to Perez Prado’s “Patricia,” a recurring theme in Rota’s prophetically collagist score. Sylvia wonders if the swarming press ever gets bored. They are never bored. We, however, may be fatigued by the gyrations of the all-too-Felliniesque satyr Frankie. Yet the point here is not vulgarity bred by excess but ungovernable fakery that breeds unconscious fakery, so that Sylvia has no idea who she is or what she is saying, while Marcello convinces himself he is in love, at least until dawn.

4. First interlude. By chance, Marcello runs into the philosopher Steiner (Alain Cuny), following him into an almost empty church, where Steiner discusses Sanskrit and plays Bach’s incredibly ominous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Only the crucial Steiner story is divided into nonconsecutive episodes, and all three interludes are somehow connected to it. Steiner represents everything Marcello thinks he aspires to; only in his company does he assume a sheepishly boyish demeanor.

5. Third story. Sylvia was hardly a whore, and in this religious carnival, the Madonna is hardly a Madonna. The frenzy is generated when two children claim to see her and to hear her plea for a new church. This is a true Fellini spectacle that, with the large number of extras and manipulation of the weather, suggests a travesty of Hollywood piety. Emma knows it is all fraud but prays fervently anyway for Marcello’s love. The photographers arrange and abandon the peasants in a tableau vivant (Luis Buñuel would run with that idea in Viridiana), and Paparazzo, who crosses himself before shooting a corpse, turns on Marcello and Emma when their quarrel makes them camera-worthy. The closing shot could have been lifted from Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, another movie about a grand scam.

6. Fourth story, part one. Mrs. Steiner welcomes Marcello to their family home and salon, which Marcello idealizes as an oasis of sanity and an inspiration to lead a worthier life, but which is in fact an occasion for bad poetry and sententious epigrams, including a paean to smoking, drinking, and sex (soon to be amended to sex, drugs, and rock and roll). As Steiner, who preaches detachment, plays a recording of winds and cheeping birds, we see through the windows klieg lights revolving like windmills.

7. Second interlude. Under Steiner’s spell, Marcello returns to his book, but is quickly distracted by a fourteen-year-old waitress, Paola from Perugia (Valeria Ciangottini), and a recording of “Patricia.”

8. Fifth story. Marcello’s estranged father (Annibale Ninchi) turns up, looking to be entertained, and Marcello introduces him to a game chorus girl, Fanny (a small but superb performance by Magali Noël), at a nightclub that offers tiger women, flappers, the cha-cha-cha, and a trumpeter clown playing Rota’s most characteristic melody. Marcello boasts of his car and apartment but feels like a pimp; what’s worse than facilitating a parent’s sexual appetite? His father’s nostalgia for 1922, the year Mussolini took power, suggests a political reason for his absences during Marcello’s youth and reminds us that, in the space of Marcello’s young life, Italy has gone from triumphant fascism to bloody tyranny to desolating war to extreme deprivation to the Italian economic miracle that has turned the open city into la dolce vita.

9. Sixth story. Back on the Via Veneto, Marcello runs into Nico, a masochist who leads him to the worst party ever, a gathering of petrified aristos, excepting the host’s amusingly bemused son. When Fellini was writing La dolce vita, Italy was either gnashing its teeth or celebrating the most important publishing event since the war: Lampedusa’s The Leopard. It’s hard not to see this chapter as Fellini’s send-up of the nobility, searching for ghosts in an old castle. Maddalena’s avowal of love, followed by her and Marcello’s instant betrayals, evoke sex as noblesse oblige. “This is the first time I’ve seen the dawn,” a woman remarks as she and Marcello wander, gowned and tuxedoed, onto the grounds of the family church.

10. Third interlude. Marcello, in a rare emotional fit, sadistically abandons Emma on a road at night, and then returns for her in the morning. Here Fellini inverts his diptych: the evening episode seems almost parenthetical in its slightness, while the dawn will convey the horror that, rather than waking Marcello to his folly, seals his doom.

11. Fourth story, part two. They are in bed when a call comes. Steiner has committed an unspeakable crime, made even worse by the paparazzi pursuing his unknowing wife, as the stunned Marcello stands befuddled in the heat. Paparazzo gets his picture and walks straight to Fellini’s camera, smug with professional satisfaction, until his own camera fills the screen.

12. Seventh story. An abrupt edit puts us at the head of a fleet of small cars, recklessly speeding to an all-night party at a producer’s beach house, but the cut is deceiving. It elides the film’s longest passage of time. Marcello’s hair is flecked with gray, and he has descended from gossip columnist to press agent—a vendor of lies. Pay him enough and he’ll knight you as the new Brando or Barrymore. He is obliged to amuse the guests at an orgy, where the participants are already spent and would rather watch. Nadia (Nadia Gray), celebrating her divorce, offers to strip (if they’ll play “Patricia”), but her bid for attention elicits no more interest than “Jingle Bells” and high-kicking transvestites. Marcello, reduced to throwing a drink in one woman’s face and mounting another like a horse, ultimately rends a pillow, baptizing the guests with feathers and complaining, “I’ve never seen such boring people!” But has anyone ever equaled Mastroianni in expressing the muddle of sadism, impotence, and loss of affect born in the revelation of utter self-loathing?

13. L’envoi. Come the dawn, the producer tosses them out of his house, and they all walk to the water, Marcello accompanied by a transvestite, where a giant stingray lies beached and dead, a white crab scuttling over its black eye. There, on the other side of a dune, is Paola from Perugia, now an angelic, exquisite young woman. She hails Marcello, but he is too apathetic to make the meager effort to respond, and in a close-up that is every bit as indelible as the film’s opening shot, she turns instead to the camera.

All of this should underscore the distinction between cinema as a novel and as a collection of interrelated short stories, a form that Fellini brought to piquant culmination in La dolce vita, breaking with the romanticism, farce, sentimentality, and even the lyricism of his early work. Only in the final close-up does he relent; but then Fellini is always redolent with optimism.

The phenomenon of La dolce vita was surprisingly short-lived. Nothing undermined its reputation as much as the 1963 release of 8½, in which the director unveiled his magic realism, years before that phrase became a cliché, pushing the personalization of cinema to the verge of autobiography. Yet that is precisely why La dolce vita holds a unique place in his oeuvre. In tracking the progress of a pilgrim who fails, he crafted a meditation that is less a portrait of the artist than of the artist’s suffocating domain, a canvas held in place with regret, irritation, and affection and not yet enveloped in the recurring paradigms of the Felliniesque. In looking outward rather than inward, it is strangely, comically, unforgivingly hopeful.