A barrage of paparazzi swarm around a starlet bombarding her with a multitude of questions. One question particularly stands out, and that is whether she considers Italian Neo-realism dead? The question seems incredibly dense in company of the other questions as well as to be directed towards a pop culture icon. The question is even more isolated from the rest as everyone’s attention is quickly diverted and an answer is never given. It’s clear that this questions inclusion is not to be directed at Sylvia, but at the audience.
Federico Fellini addresses this as La Dolce Vita marks the shifting of the paradigm that neorealism is the forte of Fellini’s work. On the surface La Dolce Vita is representative of the neo-realism movement, abandoning conventional structure and making the progression based off temporal time of an eventful seven days rather than completion of story. Characters also act in ways based off their own motives than to cleanly fit an arc or thematic representation of certain ideologies. That with the dry, authentic set designs it seems to visually and structurally be neorealism yet that is not quite the case. The events that take place are not necessarily implausible yet appear so whimsically that there is no mistaking that it is a tale of pure fiction. The departure of the statue of Christ/arrival of a monstrous fish that bookend the film, a performer who pied-piper’s balloons to follow him outside of the room, and the way people emerge out of nowhere especially the man who appears with Maddalena seem to hint that the film is more allegorical rather than grounded. Fellini’s decision to implement shooting on studio sets something uncommon for Fellini proves that the artificial nature of La Dolce Vita is intentional.
This is both to the film’s detriment and to its advantage. Fellini’s incorporation of fantasy is underutilized to an extent in La Dolce Vita. The implementation of dream logic is more balanced and integrated into Fellini’s later work, primarily 8 ½. Another successor of La Dolce Vita, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up is more sensational in its disconnect with reality. The moments of incongruous absurdity littered in Blow-Up are more surreal and aide in the film’s goal to challenge conventional storytelling. The use of elements of invasive fantasy within neorealism may have been improved upon in later films, but it’s still used appropriately in La Dolce Vita as to answer the question Fellini himself proposes, is neorealism dead? Fellini challenges neo-realism is not an aversion to the constraints of the movement but to make an addendum to it. Fellini’s philosophy derived from a “cinema of reconstruction” that not only should realism be an attempt to capture social reality but the inner working of the mind, encapsulant metaphysical and spiritual reality. The realism of La Dolce Vita questions the relationship between these realities and forces us to embrace the question of what exactly is the sweet life that the film demonstrates.
In Roger Ebert’s critical analysis of the film, he concludes that La Dolce Vita functions as a barometer meant to be dynamic reflection to the viewers own pursuit of morality and “the good life”. On the surface La Dolce Vita might appear to be a story of indulging in a luxurious paradise described by Ebert as:
“Sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman”
Contextually there is evidence to support that the film operates as a representation for damnation with symbolism found in the removal of the statue of Christ from the city, and the children’s frantic search for the sighted Madonna that goes unfound as the search ruptures into chaos. However, it seems that Marcello exists in a state of purgatory between succumbing to sinful desires and an attempt to capture genuine happiness. It’s a perpetuate state of emptiness that Marcello himself has put himself in.
Gary Giddins film assessment included in The Criterion Collection that La Dolce Vita is a poignant break from Fellini’s typical romanticism and sentimentality of his other films. The contrasting bitterness reserved to La Dolce Vita is due to the misfortune that Marcello is not cursed to misery but in a sense chooses to be. Marcello is given advice from an American poet to be wary of becoming a prisoner to commitment, cautioning him that there is some liberation to his freedom. Ultimately, she advises him to:
“Stay free, available, like me. Never get married. Never choose. Even in love, it’s better to be chosen”
It advice that Marcello follows wholeheartedly as his character devolves into becoming defined by his indecisiveness. Marcello is tested throughout the film, determining how hard he is willing to avoid commitment. First Marcello encounter a night alone with Sylvia, an embodiment of lust. Despite a playful interaction in the fountain, Marcello never chooses to go any further than this and anything that could have been abruptly ends. The despair of Marcello is exemplified as the audience sees his constant disconnect as he is unable to distinguish what or who he wants to find in order to give away his freedom.
The advice given to Marcello is challenged as the contradiction arises that while he should avoid commitment, he is also told that it is better to be chosen and, in these instances, he is. In both the case of Maddalena’s proposal and Emma’s confession both the women chose to commit themselves to him and hint that a genuine connection can exist. Yet, Marcello still resists to act unable to reciprocate Maddalena’s proposal in a meaningful way and actively fights against Emma formally ending his relationship with her. It seems with every failure Marcello accepts the inevitable futility of his pursuits and grows more distant to the idea of a committed relationship. That is why in the films final moments Marcello encounters Paola his “angel” from the restaurant. The most innocent and pure of the women Marcello interacts with, Marcello however has distance himself that he is unable to effectively communicate with her and shows little to no effort in even trying to.
Rufus Pollock states how he found that in La Dolce Vita,
“Happiness even more so than a ‘good time’ proves elusive. We see both the emptiness of La Dolce Vita and the lack of anything better”
The harsh truth of La Dolce Vita is that there’s no confirmation or even inclination that Marcello would have been better off had he actually pursued any of these relationships. The true sweet life might be similar to the philosophy of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) in that a nostalgic fantasy of what could have been is greater than having to accept that fantasy being corrupted by harsh reality. with never live up to these utopian fantasies.
Marcello’s friend Steiner acts as reminder of death looming overhead and how it was his decisions that drove him closer to it. The Interesting element of La Dolce Vita is that it ultimately is a pessimistic paradox. Marcello fears commitment as it might stop him from discovering the sweet life, but by not pursuing happiness has he prevented himself from ever achieving the sweet life. The bookend symbols of the film display the artificial Christ as beautiful and the organic stingray as hideous representing the central theme that fantasy spurs an aversion to reality. Life will never be able to match the optimism of our fantasies, but to live for fantasies is a failure to live at all.
Spotlight: Toxic Behavior
The idea that Marcello is a chip off the old block is a prominent aspect to his character growth and development. The initial charming quality of Marcello is partially due because he is still relatively a young character. At the very least, he aspires for grander things in his career, romantic pursuits, and to live a happy life like what he perceives Steiner has. Marcello’s father is very similar to Marcello with the exception that he never amounted to anything or never changed his ways. Marcello resents his father because of his lifetime infidelity, womanizing, and neglect for his homelife and that is the path that Marcello finds himself on, as he becomes more abusive and viler.
Marcello desires to settle down, live the simple “sweet life” but that might not even provide a viable solution. La Dolce Vita almost insinuates that the marriage and commitment is sort of façade or at least in Marcello’s case a sense of false hope. Marcello’s father did have the family lifestyle that Marcello yearns for, yet he ran away from it and continued to possess the toxic traits that Marcello internally despises. Then Steiner who is everything Marcello hopes to be is arguably “The most abusive” as his heinous actions are psychological torture to his wife for the rest of her life, and hints at their being pre existing strains in the relationship had affected they way she presented herself.
Then in terms of abuse, I do agree with the notion that this film should not be contextualized under the scrutiny of today’s modern sensibilities which brings up another key component of Marcello and the abuse that occurs in this film is that this behavior and cultural acceptability is all learned. It’s something learned that does indeed transcend social class but is reserved to the collective that tolerated the behavior and allowed it to bleed into the next generation. It is quite the moral dilemma when considering both Steiner and Marcello can not figure out how to achieve the perfect relationship without it ending in suffering and abuse. Does Marcello resist to pursue Paola, knowing that she’s better off not being corrupted by his disingenuous lust for the perfect women? Did Steiner become too self-aware of his toxic behavior that he decided to prevent himself from further polluting the future and stop his kids from meeting the same bitter demise. It’s valuable to consider how exactly these male characters reflect one another and what implications can be determined by using them as a reference against the historical context and themes of the film.
La Dolce Vita is in the public domain and is available to watch on The Internet Archive, do yourself a favor and go check it out.
Gary Giddins “La dolce vita: Tuxedos at Dawn” The Criterion Collection
Rufus Pollock “Everything is so difficult Marcello: Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”
Roger Ebert La Dolce Vita Review
Images are from ‘La Dolce Vita’.