DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: La Dolce Vita

Friday 12 August 2011

La Dolce Vita

La Dolce Vita (1960) dir. Federico Fellini
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Yvonne Furneaux, Anouk Aimee, Anita Ekberg, Alain Cuny, Walter Santesso, Magali Noel, Annibale Ninchi, Nico, Valeria Ciangottini, Alain Dijon and Lex Barker.


By Greg Klymkiw

It has been said that in death we all end up alone.

If we are alone in life, bereft of love, is existence itself then, not a living death?

For me, this is the central theme of La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s great classic of cinema – a film that never ceases to thrill, tantalize and finally, force its audience to look deep into a mirror and search for answers to questions about themselves. This is what makes for great movies that live beyond the ephemeral qualities far too many filmmakers and audiences prefer to settle for - especially in the current Dark Ages of cinema we find ourselves in. It’s the reason why the picture continues to live forever.

What makes La Dolce Vita especially great is that Fellini – as he was so often able to achieve – got to have his cake and eat it too. He created art that entertained AND challenged audiences the world over.

On its surface, La Dolce Vita is cool – cooler than cool, to be frank.

The title, translated from Italian into English means "The Good Life", or more appropriately, “The Sweet Life”. The movie plunges us headlong into a spectacular, decadent world of sex, sin and indulgence of the highest order. Against the backdrop of a swinging post-war Rome, the picture works its considerable magic beyond those surface details and Fellini delivers yet another magnificent entertainment that explores the eternal divide between men and women.

My poor daughter; she’s only ten years old and her Daddy has been showing her more Fellini movies than any ten year old has probably ever seen anytime, anywhere on God's good, green Earth. About halfway through La Dolce Vita – after an umpteenth sequence where Marcello Mastroianni indulges himself in the charms of yet another woman whilst his faithful girlfriend waits home alone by the phone, my daughter (who recently watched I Vitelloni, that great Fellini male layabout picture) turned to me with the sweetest straight face I will always remember and she said, “Dad, when I get older, remind me never to date Italian men.” I reminded her it wasn’t only Italian men who behaved this way. After all, had she not also recently seen Barry Levinson’s Diner? “Okay,” she added, “remind me not to date American men either.”

For those from Mars (and/or anyone who has NOT seen this movie), La Dolce Vita tells the episodic tale of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a journalist in Rome who covers the society and entertainment beat of a major tabloid newspaper. He spends most of his days and (especially) nights, hanging out in clubs, restaurants, cafes, piazzas and parties covering the lives of the rich and famous with his trusty photographer sidekick Paparazzo (Walter Santesso). (The word paparazzi, used to describe annoying news photographers came from the name of this character.)

Downright ignoring and/or paying lip service to his beautiful, sexy long-suffering live-in girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) whilst dallying with an endless parade of gorgeous women he’s writing about, Marcello is as much a celebrity as those he covers. Though he lacks the wealth his subjects are endowed with, he certainly wields considerable power.

It would seem that Marcello is living the sweet life to its fullest – at least on the surface.

It is, of course, the surface details of La Dolce Vita - both its cinematic style and content - that made it one of the biggest Italian films at the box office worldwide.

Of course, though, what audience would NOT be susceptible to the stunning form of one of the picture's ravishing stars, Anita Ekberg? As Sylvia, the Swedish screen sensation visiting Rome to make a movie, Ekberg squeezes her to-die-for curves into a series of fashionable outfits. Ekberg is style personified. From her spectacular entrance from within a private jet, posing willingly for hordes of slavering reporters to her gossamer movements round a huge luxury suite as she throws out delicious quips during a press conference and then, to her lithe, gazelle-like bounding up the endless St. Peter’s staircase until she and Marcello, who follows her avidly to the balcony, enjoy a quiet, magical, romantic interlude, perched in a holy nest towering above the Vatican.

It is the Ekberg sequences that everyone most remembers – possibly because they appear so early in the film and serve as the most sumptuously sexy introduction to Marcello’s world.

Granted, prior to Ekberg’s entrance we’re treated to the famous opening sequence of Jesus Christ in statue form being airlifted into Rome on a helicopter as Marcello and Paparazzo follow closely behind in their own whirlybird, snapping photos and hovering briefly over a bevy of bikini-clad beauties to try and get their phone numbers.

Following closely behind, we’re indulged with the ravishing beauty of Anouk Aimee as Maddalena, the bored heiress who whisks Marcello away from a nightclub, drives him through the streets of Rome in her swanky Cadillac, picks up a street whore, hires her to provide a dank, sleazy, water-flooded basement suite – a sordid love-nest, if you will, for a night of lovemaking with Marcello whilst the whore waits outside for the rest of the night - arguing with her pimp about how much room rent to charge the kinky couple.

To cap off the shenanigans we're further tantalized by Marcello’s gorgeous, heart-broken Earth Mother girlfriend Emma, writhing about from a dangerous overdose whereupon our duplicitous hero races her madly to the hospital professing his love to her all the way into the recovery room until he steps out to telephone Maddalena.

These stunning episodes not only provide insight into Marcello’s stylish rakishness, but also careen us to and fro within a veritable roller coaster ride of pure, unadulterated hedonism.

There’s no two ways about it, Marcello’s a cad, but we love him.

And seemingly, so does everyone.

By the time we get to the aforementioned Anita Ekberg sequences, it’s as if Fellini had structured the movie to luxuriate us in ever-more potent fixes of pure speed-ball-like abandon:

Jesus flying above Rome; screw it, not enough.

Gorgeous heiress banging our hero in a whore’s sleazy digs; nope, still not enough.

Lonely sex kitten girlfriend pumped on drugs and near death; uh, yeah, we still need more.

What act could possibly follow any of this?

Anita Ekberg, of course.

Fellini ups the ante on overindulgence to such a degree, that as an audience, we’re as hyped up as Marcello and those who populate this world.

As if this wasn’t enough, Fellini manages to get Ekberg to out-Ekberg Ekberg with MORE Ekberg. From airport to press conference to the Everest of Rome above the Vatican, he plunges us from the clouds of Heaven deep into the bowels of a party within the ancient walls of the Caracalla Baths. Here Marcello gets to dance arms around waist, cheek-to-cheek and chest to breast with La Ekberg until all Hell breaks magnificently loose with the arrival of the flamboyant Mephistophelean actor Frankie Stout (Alain Dijon). Marcello is banished to a table with Ekberg’s sloshed, thickheaded beefcake boyfriend Robert (played hilariously by the genuine B-movie idol Lex Barker, RKO’s Tarzan and star of numerous Euro-trash action pictures) while Frankie and Ekberg heat up the floor with a cha-cha to end all cha-chas.

Fellini continues topping himself. The next sequence of Ekberg-mania is cinema that has seldom been matched.

Can there be anything more sumptuous and breathtaking in Rome, nay – the world – than the Fountain of Trevi?

Yes, the Fountain of Trevi with Anita Ekberg in it.

I can assure you this beats any wet T-shirt contest you're likely to see.

As Fellini has incrementally hoisted us to dizzying heights, we are only one-third of the way through La Dolce Vita .

Where can the Maestro possibly take us from here?

We go where all tales of indulgence must go – down WITH redemption or down with NO redemption. Fellini forces us to hope (at times AGAINST hope) that Marcello will see the light or, at the very least, blow it big time and gain from his loss.

What we come back to is what I feel the central theme of our picture is – that if living life to the fullest is at the expense of love and to therefore live life alone, then how can life itself not ultimately be a living death?

For me, one of the fascinating ways in which Fellini tells Marcello’s story is by allowing us to fill the central character’s shoes and experience the seeming joy and style of this “sweet life”. For much of the film’s running time, we’re along for the ride – not just willingly, but as vicarious participants.

The magic Fellini conjures is subtle indeed. The whole business of getting the cake and eating it too plays a huge part in the proceedings. So often, great stories can work by indulging us in aberrant behaviour – glamorizing it to such a degree that we’re initially unable to see precisely what the protagonist’s real dilemma is. Not seeing the dilemma in the early going allows us to have some fun with the very thing that threatens to be the central character's potential downfall.

For Marcello, it eventually becomes – slowly and carefully – very obvious. He is surrounded by activity, enveloped by other people, the centre of attention of those he is reporting on, yet he is, in a sense, an island unto himself.

Marcello is, in spite of those around him, truly alone.

His real challenge is to break free of the shackles of excess in order to love. Alas, to love another and, in turn, accept their love, he must learn to love himself. On the mere surface, Marcello is all about self-gratification, but as the story progresses and Fellini places him at the centre of yet more sumptuous and indulgent sweet-life set pieces, we see a man struggling with the demons – not only of excess, but those ever-elusive opportunities to gratify the soul.

Even the roller coaster ride of Marcello’s relationship with Emma, the one constant person in his life willing to die for love of him, is a story element that keeps us with his journey. When he is annoyed and/or even disgusted with her, so too are we – and yet, we have the ability – one that Fellini bestows upon us by alternately keeping us in Marcello’s perspective and at arm’s length from it to see just how unconscionable and even wrongheaded he’s being. Most importantly, we begin to feel for Emma and understand her love and frustration. We see how brilliant and charming Marcello is also and a part of us craves for him to find peace.

Finally, what is especially poignant and tragic is that Marcello can only admit to both Emma and himself that he does love her when he is alone (or as in one great scene - seemingly alone) with her. Strangely, these are the few times in the movie when Marcello is truly NOT alone.

When Marcello is together with Emma in the presence of others, it's a different story altogether. When he brings her along to cover a Madonna-sighting which turns into a wild carnival of Catholic hysteria, he withdraws from Emma and she finds herself caught up in the craze of this "miracle". The miracle is, however, false. The two young children who have been put up to claiming they can see the Madonna by their fortune-seeking family, run to and fro - hundreds of the faithful following madly in their footsteps - even Emma, who begs God for Marcello to be with her exclusively and forever.

When Marcello seeks solace in his old friend Steiner (Alain Cuny) a man who has filled his own life with art, literature, culture and most importantly, a sense of home and family, Marcello sees a potential way of escape. Alas, further set pieces involving Steiner dash Marcello’s hopes.

During a vicious argument that eventually ensues between Marcello and Emma, Fellini once again proves that – in spite of his excesses as a stylist – he is ultimately a filmmaker endowed with considerable humanity. Though the bile rises and invective is hurled violently from both parties, we are placed squarely in front of humanity at its most raw and vulnerable.

The final sequences in this film are laden with excess, but they’re certainly no fun anymore. Nor is Marcello. After a pathetic failed attempt at instigating an orgy amongst an especially ragtag group of drunks (climaxing with Marcello riding on a woman's back horsey-style), the party goers (included here is a cameo from the iconic rock legend Nico) stumble out in the early morning onto the beach.

Caught in the nets of some fishermen is a dead sea creature - a strange cross between a stingray and coelacanth, its eyes still open and staring blankly into the heavens. It's the first of two images Marcello encounters on the beach which he bores his own gaze into.

This one is dead - surrounded by many, but finally, ultimately and unequivocally alone.

He then encounters, from a considerable distance across the sand and water, the angelic figure of Paola (Valeria Ciangottini), a pure, youthful young lady he met much earlier in the film - one of the few times when beauty and innocence seemed to touch him far deeper than surface fleshly desires. They look at each other - as if they can see into each others' eyes. The stunningly beautiful young woman, with her enigmatic smile, tries in vain to communicate with Marcello, but the wind drowns out her words and Marcello, his eyes at first bright, turn blank like the dead leviathan. He gives up, turns and joins his coterie of losers.

There is, however, hope in Paola's eyes - perhaps even the hope of a new generation.

Finally, though, Fellini offers no redemption for Marcello.

All that remains is the inevitability of a living death in a sweet life lived without love.

The sweet life, such as it is, proves sour, indeed.

A gorgeous restored film print of La Dolce Vita is being presented in Toronto at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox as part of the phenomenal programme entitled “Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions”. The film screens August 13, August 28 and September 2. On August 28, there will be a special pairing of both film and food. Following the screening, moviegoers will feast on delectable morsels prepared by Executive Chef Jason Bangerter. The three-course Italian menu, inspired by La Dolce Vita, will be accompanied by Italian wine via sommelier Anthony Demas. While this seems like a perfectly good idea, I have to admit that a movie that so powerfully and provocatively explores the emptiness of decadence in a world without love might not best be served by bourgeois indulgence. Oh well, ‘tis to be expected, I suppose. It is Toronto, after all. That said, upon experiencing any great work of art, the last things I usually want to do are stuff my face and guzzle wine. But, hey! That’s my trip. You’re welcome to yours. La Dolce Vita is, frankly, a trip enough for this fella’.

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