Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita is considered one of the greatest films in the history of world cinema. Starring Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini, a writer/journalist casually in search of love and happiness which proves elusive, the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. La dolce vita bridges Fellini’s earlier neo-realist period with his later art films. The film highlights the decadence and materialism of high society in the post war boom, skeptically questioning the resulting morality this new modernism exudes.
The film is broken into seven episodes, each episode taking place in the course of one day and evening (with the evening often coming first), though there is no real continuous structure of events or linearly consistent narrative. Instead we follow the wandering of Mastroianni’s character in his search for love (or at least for temporary companionship), during the course of which one senses the meandering of humanity searching for meaning within the moral emptiness of a world that seems to have lost its soul.
Mastroianni’s interaction with the women he pursues and the woman who suffocatingly loves him provides much of the depth of the film, though Rome itself provides the foundation. While Rome is occasionally shown with surface beauty, such as the famous scene in the Trevi Fountain or the aerial view of St. Peters, what we are really presented with is a stark view of the city with decay everywhere, despite the economic boom supporting decadent lifestyles. Similarly, the women surrounding Mastroianni’s character are externally beautiful (especially Anouk Aimée as Maddalena and Anita Ekberg as Sylvia) but internally ugly, as devoid of morality as their lives are empty in meaning.
I am of two minds regarding this film. I enjoy most of the episodes, especially the dialogue, the settings and the filmwork. The work of Mastroianni and the women he pursues is fabulous in representing lost souls either searching for, or having given up on, a purposeful life. However, just as in Fellini’s great 8 1/2, the film loses me some towards the end with its symbolistic excessiveness. The party at Riccardo’s beach house just seems extreme beyond necessity. I suppose it is the logical culmination of life spiraling away from moral meaning and the loss of opportunity, but in some ways I think the message is more powerful if done with subtlety forcing one to question the ultimate conclusion of a path followed.
Filmed in 1960, La dolce vita is an ultimate reflection of ‘1960’s-ism’ in its over-reaction to where the world was heading in its post-war boom, its lack of confidence in the meaning of humanity and its placing of style over substance. Having said that, it is a great film — done with great form, by a great director, with a great actor. It is well worth experiencing and provides much to think about.