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.
This is where “Caracalla’s”—an ascending mambo driven by staccato guitar work, a combination of airy and heavy percussion, and repeated exclamatory shouts from Rota’s ensemble—makes its frenetic impact while also revisiting the leitmotif of the film’s main theme, a slow, melancholic shuffle that sounds like exit music for a dispersing party. In complete contrast, “Caracalla’s” is music for a party in full swing, evoking the participative, communal, and egalitarian nature of the best soirées as various horns take turns at soloing over the leitmotif. It’s as if Rota’s reworking of his own theme has reinvigorated the sad, mummified world of the decadent rich and famous, and Sylvia responds to this liberation by flinging off her white fur, kicking off her heels, and swirling her long black dress. She then twists, drops to the floor, and lifts onto Frankie’s shoulders as if she had just scored a winning touchdown. A dancing circle forms around Sylvia’s preternatural luminosity, her ability to not just elicit the gaze of those who adore and desire her but more so to illuminate and inspire them. And as if to prove her gaiety needn’t be only loftily exulted, she ends the dance by holding and rocking Frankie’s feet as he performs a handstand. It’s an absurd, silly gesture that cements the bond between these childlike characters, neither of whom dance for any other reason—to show off, to seduce, to avoid exclusion—than the pure pleasure of doing so.
Two men remain conspicuously outside this festive circle. Marcello stands to its side and claps along to the music, but only half-heartedly, a forced smile expressing his appreciation but also envy of Sylvia’s self-possession, not to mention his frustration in failing to have her to himself. Sylvia’s fiancé Robert (Lex Barker), meanwhile, sits drunk at a table, drawing mean-spirited caricatures as he occasionally glares at Sylvia to convey his displeasure at her antics. He is possessive like Marcello, but he’s further along in his self-hatred and discontent for loving a woman who cannot be possessed. He is at an even greater distance from the dance than Marcello, and shows undisguised disdain toward the woman whose infectious love of life makes his cynicism look impotent and defeated.
Marcello remains more likable than Robert because he at least possesses self-awareness about his inability to fully participate in the dance of life. But he’s not much better than Robert, either. Robert is a failed man: an alcoholic and abusive partner who has abandoned his acting career—his own version of the dance—to pass judgment on others from the wings. Marcello likewise rejects a place within the dance, but this rejection belies his dependence on it not only for a job, but also for existential certitude and authority. Marcello’s celebrity journalism sells to the public the abandon from which he and they remain alienated—he cannot truly partake in uninhibited pleasure because otherwise he cannot profit from and build a reputation upon it as its documenter, the professional arbiter of taste who grants his readers vicarious access to forbidden energies.
“Caracalla’s” reveals Sylvia as Marcello’s idealized conception of abandon and dance, an uncontainable, independent subject whose unrepressed movement eludes his power to commodify and control. This conception is contained in the evocative and multilayered song itself. Whereas up until this point the film’s music has been either whimsically sad or sadly whimsical, “Caracalla’s” is the first bright and buoyant note, an announcement that Sylvia is of a vastly different disposition than La dolce vita’s other major characters. But even in the most cheerful Rota song there exists a bittersweet undertone, a saturnine hint that for every person viscerally enjoying the rhythm and melody someone else is unable to do the same. Though “Caracalla’s” reinvigorates La dolce vita’s main theme, the main theme also embeds itself in “Caracalla’s,” subtly recalling the sorrowful side of reverie. This is why for all the great music he composed for other directors, Rota never worked better with anyone than Fellini, whose images are the cinematic equivalent of Rota’s music. “Caracalla’s” possesses Fellini and Rota’s singular hopefulness while also communicating the ephemerality of effervescence, the sad inevitability that the abandon of dance is not for all and must eventually end.
For Sylvia the end of dance also means the end of freedom—Marcello and Robert achieve more success in pulling her into their orbit of repression (and oppression) than she has of pulling them into her orbit of liberation. Yes, in the famous dawn scene at the Trevi Fountain, Sylvia persuades Marcello to throw caution to the wind and join her in the water—but even then Marcello mostly gapes at Sylvia’s complete immersion in the magical moment. His last attempt to possess results in Sylvia’s abuse at the hands of an indignant Robert, and the last we see of her she’s crying and storming into a hotel, not at all the vision of wild innocence we had seen at her peak. We also know that this moment will become tabloid fodder, reducing her to an image of one half of a clichéd tumultuous Hollywood marriage. But for a moment, at the Baths and to the sounds of Rota’s sublime “Caracalla’s,” Sylvia is the rarest of creatures in La dolce vita, transcending the idea of the spectacle as something primarily to be seen, documented, and judged, and restoring its supreme purpose as something to live.