At first it’s just one of many Fellini-esque dances: a band switches to an upbeat tune, Nino Rota’s “Caracalla’s (La Bersagliera),” and a previously dour party becomes an impromptu circle of ecstatic movement. Though overshadowed in La dolce vita by the more iconic scenes that precede and follow—Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) and Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) looking onto Vatican City Square from the top of St. Peter’s Dome, Marcello and Sylvia wading into the Trevi Fountain—“Caracalla’s” and its accompanying dance form one of the most emotionally resonant and thematically complex moments in all of Fellini’s storied films.
Because even though most of the partygoers move to “Caracalla’s,” some characters don’t so much refuse to dance as prove incapable of doing so—indeed, all they can do is look on as others abandon themselves to it. And watching others dance can be painful when we’re not dancing ourselves. There we are, sitting on the sidelines, self-conscious and preoccupied with worry, unable to muster the nerve to participate in an uninhibited, communal display of joy. We can only participate vicariously, and that’s no substitute for an act that’s life-affirming in its doing, not its witnessing. “Caracalla’s” clearly signals a turn in mood and motion at a heretofore sedate party, and Fellini seems to enjoy this newfound vivaciousness—so why does he also shine a spotlight on those who resist it?
It’s due to the potentially sedate quality of the medium in which he works. Despite all the music and dancing they experience at the movies, spectators are rarely moved to leave their seats in order to get down in the aisles and destroy—at least symbolically—the barrier between screen life and real life. Indeed, it frequently seems that the more life there is on-screen, the more our own lives seem stagnant and stale in comparison.
Fellini’s films continually explore the strange, sad dynamic between dancers and voyeurs. One of the keys to understanding this theme is The Journey of G. Mastorna, Fellini’s planned 1965 film about a man who finds death much like the life he knew, but as if through a disorienting fog. Mastorna was never completed but nonetheless infused everything Fellini directed from the late sixties onward: think of the psychedelic zombification of ancient Rome in Fellini Satyricon or the Enlightenment-turned-underworld of Casanova or the modern living-dead carnival of The Voice of the Moon, all cinematic universes existing somewhere between vitality and lifelessness, where the possessed and those who wish to possess them endlessly commingle.
Much of Mastorna, for example, already exists in La dolce vita, Fellini’s three-hour portrait of a postwar Italy that had put fascism in the past while transforming into a cosmopolitan hall of mirrors. The dark unreality of La dolce vita lies in its vision of curdled sincerity, ambition, and purpose in a brave new postmodernity of illusory excesses: celebrity, money, and the nonstop agitation of the always-sensational.
Despite its excess, the problem with the Rome of La dolce vita isn’t that it’s too fun but that it’s not fun enough. One of the film’s rich ironies is that the seemingly shallow or vapid characters who make spectacles of themselves with their joyous celebrations of life elicit our sympathy due to their moral goodness and innocence, while the intellectual and refined characters who believe themselves above these spectacles are often revealed as moral hypocrites bordering on physical and spiritual deterioration. That these characters must coexist provokes the tragicomic quality of “The Sweet Life” Fellini envisions.
The character in La dolce vita who embodies goodness and innocence, and who wholeheartedly revels in the beauty of life, is Sylvia, played by Ekberg as a sort of Swedish-American fertility goddess transcending mere voluptuous sexuality through boundless exuberance and generosity of spirit. As a professional writer who also practices celebrity journalism, Marcello is just the opposite, understanding love as a game of possessing what he desires and avoiding possession by those who desire him—he only sees in Sylvia someone to grant him the personal liberation he’s too cowardly to seek for himself. He admits as much as they close-dance to a soporific ballad at a party held at the Baths at Caracalla:
You’re everything, Sylvia. You know that? The first woman on the first day of creation. You’re mother, sister, lover, friend . . . angel, devil, earth, home. That’s what you are: home!
But Sylvia is not “home,” nor is she any of the roles Marcello wishes to assign her. She cannot and will not be reduced to a symbol of somebody else’s unearned rebirth. So it’s only appropriate that soon after Marcello’s confession, as if freeing herself from its demands, Sylvia lets loose with a dance of wild abandon, spurred on by Frankie Stout (Alain Dijon), a Pan-like figure with curly blond hair and beard whose appearance at the moribund party ignites a frenzy of bodies writhing to gloriously upbeat music.
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