A reputation can precede a film. La Dolce Vita was one of the most salacious and controversial films of all time and watching it today you wonder if the film would even get a PG-13 rating. This isn't the opaque decadence that surrounded Fellini's more self absorbed later films but a purposeful and masterful decadence. There are moments that seem completely surreal but the entire story is grounded in a profound truth one that seems far more relevant today than in 1960. Has Fellini predicted the future of society with this picture or was this a subtle taunting of repressed middle class society and a glimpse at an unattainable life? Either case could be made and along the films 174 minutes there is a great deal of time to ponder and wonder about just what can go on.
It's hard on an initial viewing to see what all the fuss was about. Nothing really seems to happen. Marcello wanders around Rome's hot spots sometimes getting into things, sometimes almost getting into things, waking up in the sober dawn and then going out for another round once the sun goes down. No one learns anything, no one grows, life just progresses and without much consequence. The film isn't particularly non-linear, there is a clear progression and prior scenes build on each other, but first time around you may expect something to come of this. Will Marcello finally settle with Emma, can Maddalena redeem him, or is that innocent girl who wishes to be a typist his chance at salvation? We have a glimpse at each potential world but it is very telling that Marcello can't hear the words of the angel he had glimpsed earlier and walks away with a random woman away from the beach. His is a life of dissatisfaction and ambivalence. He wants to do something, but is a little too lazy to make a go of it. He would love to be in love but can't seem to commit for more than a night. Despite his occasional confessions he desires, but doesn't seem to love. The one time he seems like he might be able to honestly open up about his hollow lifestyle is to Maddalena when she seems like she's ready to end her similar hollow lifestyle. The telling reveal is that as he's pouring his heart out to her from another room she winds up being seduced by a man we've never seen before who quite possibly Maddalena has never seen before. It might seem callous on her part when you first view it, but only moments later Marcello seduces the hostess with the two-toned hair, thus squelching any idea that he was sincere in his declaration.
Through most of his career Fellini was known for casting his actors not on their acting ability or prior resume, but based on how they looked. He would get a large number of head shots, and just pick out who he thought looked right for a part. This may account for some of the flat acting apparent in many of his films, but everyone has a look, and can be quite iconic. Second billed Anita Ekberg made a name for herself as the childlike obscure object of desire for Marcello. The American movie star who gets Marcello a punch in the face and he doesn't even get to sleep with her. Although Ekberg wasn't particularly well known in 1959 when cast seeing her come off the plane we have no trouble whatsoever believing she's a movie star. When in her hotel room for a press conference we are bombarded with the silliest and most frivolous questions proving that celebrity journalism has not changed much since. Although built like every bit the goddess Fellini makes an attempt to portray her as childlike. She has the attention span of a child, and wanders from one thing to the other. Frequently in silent films directors would give their actresses small dogs or kittens to help portray their innocence, and Fellini in turn does this for Ekberg who finds a small kitten which immediately captivates her. She wants Marcello to get milk for it, and when he returns she has forgotten the kitten and is playing in the fountain. It holds true to her childlike character that we don't see her making love with anyone, particularly Marcello.
Marcello's dreams of a respectable life come crashing down with the films greatest tragedy. His friend and Steiner has been set up in two previous scenes as what Marcello could be, a deliberate character foil. A man who is something of a respectable writer, with a family, two adorable kids, and a nice place as opposed to Marcello's apartment which seems to be stalled between remodeling jobs, with nothing of any decoration. Steiner has encouraged him to pursue his writing and wants him to finish his novel, trying to get him away from the scandal sheets that comprise his living. Marcello is noticeably jealous of him and briefly sees a life that he might be able to have, although he can't picture having it with Emma. He is not interested in a maternal love and we can see why. His father was away for most of his childhood and he was at home with his mother who would cry day in day out. He knows what clinging maternal love is like and at this point in his life he wants no part of it. However he finds himself unable to break away from Emma. He hates the way she is dependent on him, yet despite one outburst can't seem to leave her. This might be back to his non-committal nature that he can't bring himself to follow through on anything, including ending a relationship. He still vaguely wants her around, and even after their big fight they wind up sleeping together. It is after this that he hears of Steiner's suicide and double homicide. Those two lovely children who woke up just to get an extra kiss from their father were killed. We never find out why, but Marcello can see with Steiner's blow up the death of his dream of settling down.
I can't say enough about how extraordinary this film is. A pivotal turning point in world cinema and in the career of Fellini. For better or worse Fellini's film career was altered. He lost his innocence with this film and remained constantly aware of his own celebrity. To date no film has shown how lecherous the paparazzi can be, most notably when Steiner's wife returns to hear the news of her family. Not even tragedy to a non-celebrity is private in this scandal obsessed culture. Although I've seen the film twice before this was the first time I saw it in it's original aspect ratio and the difference is staggering. The frame is populated from end to end, and only once do we really get a sense of open space and that is during the final beach sequence. Fellini was never a fan of keeping a static camera, and even if his characters don't move around much he never worries about moving things around. Their is a fluidity to the whole proceedings, but I did catch one discontinuous editing choice in the abandoned villa which I can't figure out why it would have been there. Every image is bustling with life except for the dawn scenes where the streets are mysteriously abandoned, much in the way Antonioni's streets were neglected at the end of L'Eclisse. Although it seems like a city that never sleeps, at dawn there is only a sober realization that the party is over. Even at the end when a drunken Marcello is demanding that the party must never end he fails at orchestrating any lasting activity and all the guests get bored and eventually leave. In away Fellini was telling us that this party had to end as well, and we need to leave the theater to step out into the cold sober dawn of the outside world.