the sweet life

Lawrence Russell

La Dolce Vita, 1960 dir. Frederico Fellini writ. Fellini, Flaiano, Pinelli cine. Otello Martelli music Nino Rota Star Marcello Mastrianni (Marcello), Anouk Aimee (Maddalena), Walter Santesso (Paparazzo), Yvonne Furneaux (Emma), Anita Ekberg (Sylvia), Lex Barker (Robert), Alain Cuny (Steiner), Annibale Ninchi (Marcello's father), Nadia Gray (Stripper), Valerie Ciangotti (Paola, the innocent)

There aren't many opening sequences that match this one: a helicopter flies over a broken Roman viaduct, a statue of Christ suspended below its fuselage like an effigy from a cargo cult. A second helicopter shadows it, bearing a journalist and his photographer. Their journey is not only a mission for the Vatican but also a progression through Time. They fly over ancient ruins, then over construction sites and the new cluster housing units on the edge of the city before closing on St. Peter's Square. The journalists linger briefly above a rooftop patio where some pretty women are sunbathing, engage in a brief flirtation with shouts and sign language as the chopper hovers. The women want to know where they are taking the statue. Where else -- to the Pope.

It's this atmosphere of religious cynicism and cultivated decadence that drives La Dolce Vita. The heresy isn't a political articulation but rather one of indifference. At the core of the movie is the suicide of Steiner, musician and intellectual, which marks the collapse of contemporary culture like an abyss between the secular left and the religious right. And it's along this abyss that Marcello, gossip columnist of the rich and famous, charts his rite of passage in a determined attempt to remain a child disguised as a man.

Marcello lives for sensation, evades commitment. He's always on the move in his chic little English sports car between trendy Roman sidewalk bistros and nightclubs, seldom at his apartment which remains undecorated and unfurnished in an obvious expression of his spiritual indifference. When he writes, he writes in empty cafes. When he loves, he loves in the flooded basement suite of a prostitute or in the darkness of a ruined villa. His women are transitional, secular icons of the affluent world he covers, fantasies of the moment, patterns in the night.

"I like lots of things, but there are three things I like most: love, love... and love." (Sylvia the movie star at her press conference)

His live-in girlfriend Emma overdoses on sleeping pills but is saved when he races her to hospital, has her stomach pumped. But he might as well not have bothered, as he continues to neglect her in his continuous drift through the socials and press assignments that become parties, ambiguous destinations in a false reality. He pursues the visiting American/Scandinavian filmstar Sylvia (Ekberg) into a bell tower, into a fountain, but their brief affair comes to nothing. He visits the scene of a Madonna vision, endures the reenactment for the media and a rain storm, but no miracle is forthcoming. He talks with Steiner about the meaning of life but Steiner kills his two children, shoots himself in the head.

His pursuit of sensation is degenerative, climaxes at a drunken party in the seaside villa of a movie producer -- another agent of fantasy. The revellers are a collection of thespian drifters, queens, artists, international party animals drawn together on the thin excuse of celebrating Nadia's "annulment". The metaphor of separation continues. Marcello -- wearing a white suit like some sort of secular priest -- is the ringmaster of the dissipation, urging the guests into exhibitionism. Nadia performs a striptease, but even this isn't enough. Marcello offers to perform public sex but the best he can do is ride a woman like donkey. He throws bottles, smashes furniture, rags pillows, throws chunks of chicken over the naked shoulders and breasts of a woman.

"Maybe one day we'll all be homosexual..."

The scene is pathetic, like the infantile defiance of adolescents smearing excrement over tombstones. The producer returns home, expels this rabble from his villa, some migrating through the woods to the beach where some fishermen have caught a "sea monster". Marcello and the others watch as it's hauled onto the beach, a membranous blob with a single eye that seems to be alive, maybe scrutinizing them. Are they looking at themselves in the prehistoric past? The image is Darwinian, secular, a dramatic denial of the false miracle of the Madonna. "Maybe one day we'll all be homosexual," babbles one of the Queens in an unrelated observation. But, in fact, it is related, as Fellini is the master of oblique innuendo.

Someone is calling Marcello. Further down the beach a girl is waving. He walks towards her but is stopped by a small river that separates them. It's Paola, the young "innocent" from the cafe where Marcello sometimes goes to write. They try to communicate but the surf is too loud, a primal noise that divides them as effectively as a child leaving the womb. Marcello smiles, waves, turns away... leaving it all behind.

The "it" -- the indefinite article -- has the plastic possibilities of several meanings. As symbolism, this sequence is brilliant, resolving the two primary themes of religious disbelief and secular solipsism. Marcello is the Modern Man, unable to believe, unable to commit, a lost child in the body of a monster.

"We live in a state of suspended animation... like a work of art."

Steiner's suicide is pivotal. Is Man the only animal for whom suicide is an option? Is it a detachment from God? Or is it merely another part of the mechanism that binds us within the cosmic plan. Steiner appears to have it all: a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, an upscale condo and the favor of the Church. His "party" includes an intellectual elite of international and local artists and thinkers. He has "committed", yet he is another version of Marcello. "I'm too serious to be an amateur, and not serious enough to be a professional." He urges Marcello to get serious about his writing, move beyond these "semi-fascist scandal sheets". The guests listen to a tape montage of Nature: birds, wind, water, rain, thunder. They also tape their conversations, creating instant "art". "Art," says Steiner, "has left nothing to chance." This avant-garde milieu appears to be the summit of mid-century culture... yet Steiner is a troubled man.

He suffers from nuclear anxiety, the fragility of life in the Cold War. He is cosmopolitan, yet Italianate, a contradiction of principles. He dotes on his children, blesses them as they sleep like a parody of the Pope.

That he later kills them so that they will be with him in his transcendental sleep is an act of religious arrogance as much as it is a gesture of secular despair. He consigns his wife to Hell in order that he may be free.

Later the investigating Detectives listen to his taped conversation, Dialogue Between Feminine Wisdom and Masculine Uncertainty as Steiner sits nearby, leaning forward as if in rapture, the bullet hole clearly evident in the side of his temple.

Each side of the abyss has separate but inevitable routes to loneliness, despair and death. Marcello investigates the scene of the miracle sighting of the Virgin but when the stampeding crowd has finished, only the corpse of a trampled man remains in the mud. In the ruined villa adjoining the castle, a possessed woman at a seance moans, "I want to love... life, everything there is..." but minutes later his mistress Maddalena cheats on him after proposing marriage through a wall like a spirit. When he confronts his prehistoric self on the beach, can he be anything other than an apostate? Religion is the denial, art is the testament.

Night. Marcello and Emma sit in his sports car, arguing:

Emma: You'll end up alone, like an animal -- you'll see!

Marcello: I hate your selfishness... it's not love, it's animalism!

She bites his hand as he drags her from the car, then drives off. He returns at dawn, finds her still pacing, a bunch of flowers in her hand. They reconcile... for the moment. Marcello's not a bad man, even if he lacks character. His flaw is rooted in the mid-century sickness, that is, the redefinition of the supernatural by science. He's a victim of paranoia, a species on the verge of self-extinction. He thinks he has free-will, yet moves like an automaton. Soon the world will be full of people like him, child-men driven by cynicism, always on the move or waiting for something to happen.

The film opens with a statue of Christ, closes with an ingenue version of the Virgin. The heresy is sublime, coded in the imagery -- but who is to say it isn't the truth? Fellini is never monolithic, propaganda. Yet like Shakespeare, there's a sense that the genius of Fellini is not the genius of a single mind. While the Fellini "style" is clearly evident, you wonder how much of its intellectual fabric comes from his main writing collaborator, the novelist Ennio Flaiano.

© LR '63/99


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