La Dolce Vita (1960)

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*. The helicopters come in low, flying over the ancient ruins of an aqueduct, with Christ suspended somewhere in between. And we’re sure this must mean something. It’s hard not to think of Antonioni’s La Notte (which came out the next year), with that first shot juxtaposing the ancient and the modern.
*. Is Fellini being paradoxical? I don’t think so. The Renaissance kicked off in Italy precisely because of the presence of all those ancient ruins and models. This is a country where style has never gone out of style, because it’s always been right there in front of you, or under foot.
*. The beautiful photography by Otello Martelli, and clothes by Piero Gherardi are just part of it. Even the cars are both modern and classic. We’ll never be that way again.

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*. But now that style faces its most terrible threat: Hollywood. Here come the new barbarians with their big tits, quick fisticuffs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Look out or they’ll wreck the place.
*. Let’s go back to La Notte. There’s Marcello Mastroianni again, a writer again, and falling out of (and in) love again. He has a dying mentor (Steiner here, Tommaso in La Notte) who can’t save him. There’s a sudden rainstorm. There’s a semi-decadent party, and an emotional hangover the next morning. And both movies end with Mastroianni stuck in the sand.
*. Something else it shares with La Notte is an antagonistic attitude toward nature. The great outdoors at the end of La Notte is a manicured golf course. Nature here is a tape recording of nature sounds that Steiner plays in his drawing room, or a tree that gets ripped to pieces by a crowd of fanatics, or the transvestite’s “Oh, nature!” as he walks out to the sea, which is an ironic ejaculation to be sure.

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*. But the big difference between the two films lies in their view of women. Monica Vitti has style, and depth. Anita Ekberg’s Sylvia is at best a sculpture, an icon. At worst she’s an airheaded bit of luggage. The one is glamorous, the other sexual. Fellini may be more realistic (and that’s a term I use only in a relative way), but Antonioni’s women are more interesting.
*. It’s a movie about the media: writers, journalists, photographers, television crews, filmmakers. And with all those layers of mediation it asks what reality is. In particular, what is a real woman?
*. That’s a question you don’t want to ask a romantic or a poet. You’re likely to get an earful about how “You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You are mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, earth, home.” Or the almost equally over-the-top speech about “oriental woman” we hear at Steiner’s place.

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*. It’s all very romantic, but it’s also condescending. Because “woman” is so elevated, individual women become interchangeable. The actresses here are all beautiful, but after a while I had trouble telling them apart. The girl at the nightclub looked too much like Marcello’s fiancé Emma. And Nadia . . . who the hell is Nadia? Where did she come from?

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*. The movie’s poetry, its romanticism, is always being called into question, I think. The scene in the Trevi Fountain has become a romantic touchstone, with so many people climbing into it after the success of La Dolce Vita that guards had to be posted around it to prevent them. And it was even turned off and draped in black in honour of Mastroianni when he died in 1996. But when you think about it, just how romantic is that scene? Sylvia seems high, as though she might not even know where she is. And by this point Marcello appears to have figured out that she’s not all he’s built her up to be.

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*. Negative critics call the orgy scene boring. But (I imagine) any orgy is boring if you’re just watching. Sex is too. And this isn’t an “orgy” anyway. In fact, it’s kind of hard to figure out just what this group of people is up to. Did Fellini attend parties like this? Who does? Or did?
*. It’s a very structured film, built around a series of night/dawn transitions, but I don’t think the individual episodes work that well together. The paparazzi (to use the name this film gave them) are what hold it together. No matter what the subject matter is, they’re snapping pics.

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*. Another part of the structure that’s pretty obvious is the way the first and final scenes show Marcello unable to communicate with someone — the women sunbathers on the roof and then the young girl at the end. This is yet another link to one of Antonioni’s abiding concerns.
*. David Thomson hates it: “Nothing happens, except for flatulent set pieces, epic reaches of symbolism, and teary-eyed larger metaphors.” But why does he say the opening sequence has helicopters lifting an upside-down statue of Christ? The statue isn’t upside-down. David!
*. Thomson isn’t alone in considering it overrated. Indeed, he’s probably in the majority opinion today. The tide turned against La Dolce Vita fairly quickly. As Gary Giddins remarks in his liner essay for the Criterion DVD: “The phenomenon of La dolce vita was surprisingly short-lived.” It was a succès de scandale when it came out, but only ten years later people were wondering what the fuss was all about.
*. Nothing about it seems very shocking now. As the transvestite prophesies: “By 1965 there’ll be total depravity.” Compare the wild party here with the way we see the kids (mis)behaving in Spring Breakers!

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*. But I don’t think it’s the loss of that original shock value that bothers people the most. I think it more likely that we just find it a bit dull. It seems far too long for a movie, one that suggests a lot but that doesn’t really go anywhere.
*. In fact, it seems to go into reverse. It’s unclear how big a gap there is between the scene with Steiner’s wife at the bus depot and the house party. Given the structure of the rest of the film you expect it to be the night of the same day, but Marcello seems to have aged.
*. But he hasn’t just aged. He’s regressed into a second childhood. His coiffure may have streaks of grey, but this only makes him appear more foppish. And he behaves in a manner that’s surprisingly out of control and juvenile in comparison with everything that’s come before. Whatever chance he had at redemption has been lost.
*. I think that’s the “meaning” of the girl (Paola) he sees on the beach. They’ve drifted apart because she’s outgrown him and can no longer function as any kind of angelic muse. And so it’s back to the trashy whores with Marcello. His time is up.

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