`La dolce vita' Shows the Sadness

Fellini's masterpiece depicts the dark side of modern life


La dolce vita

directed by Frederico Fellini

at the Brattle Theatre

February 17

The late legendary filmmaker, Frederico Fellini is not shy about undisguisedly thrusting religious imagery onto the viewer, for in the brief opening sequence of "La dolce vita", he depicts the Second Coming of Christ with a helicopter carrying a statue of Jesus Christ towards St. Peter's Square in Rome. But Fellini immediately proposes the tragic theme of a world incapable of spiritual reawakening, a world without God where people are incapable of giving and receiving love. Reporters covering the story of the statue's transport are inside the helicopter, and the only people they humorously manage to "awaken" are four attractive sunbathers on a rooftop shouting "It's Jesus Christ,"from whom they unsuccessfully request Phone numbers.

In "La dolce vita," Marcello Mastroianni plays Marcello Rubini, a journalist who makes his living By reporting the scandals of the rich and famous, the "high society" of Rome. Marcello is not just involved with this society in the professional sphere of his life; he adopts their strange and decadent lifestyle. Often it is unclear whether Marcello is reporting on the people he is spending time with or whether he has become a part of their society. The story does not have a conventional plot, rather, it evolves scene to scene, with a modernist and discontinuous structure.

Throughout the film Marcello encounters characters in an increasingly declining moral climate. All of these people reject any sort of self-analysis and simply spend their time at parties and gatherings, escaping from life with alcohol and casual sex. Even moments of conversational insight are lost on such a crowd. One woman declares during an informal party. "I believe that if we live intensely, in spiritual fulfillment, every minute is worth a year and every year we get younger!" Her flippantly-made remark is quickly laughed off: "An oracle! An alcoholic oracle!" Marcello seems to stop searching for fulfillment, rather he celebrates the meaninglessness of life.

In one particularly moving and brutal scene, Marcello goes with Emma to report on a sighting of the Madonna by two children. People traveled to the site to express their faith; one woman holds an ailing child and prays for him to be healed. While Emma prays to the Madonna for a rebirth of their love, Marcello stands at the site merely as a reporter, an observer. As night falls, rain comes down and mayhem ensues. People begin to riot, tearing branch by branch the tree where the Madonna was seen, and the little boy dies. The morning reveals the world as emptier than before.

Fellini has said about his films that he never really has a final scene. His stories, he says, show a state of friction in the relationships that ought to exist between people, some anxiety or some trouble. This is indeed reflected in "La dolce vita." For Fellini ends the film on the beach, where the drunken party finds its end. All the partygoers stare down at a dead fish prone on the shore, its glassy eyes staring out, but at nothing. Marcello looks over and sees an innocent and angelic girl whom he met while taking his interim from journalism, and she tries to communicate with him from the far side of an inlet stream but they cannot hear each other over the waves. The party slowly stumbles away, and we see her innocent face smiling in their direction.

"La dolce vita" derived mainly from Fellini's personal impressions of the Via Veneto, Rome's street of outdoor cafes and nightclubs, which had become by the late 1950s an international hangout for the trendy. When the film first opened in 1960, it was extremely controversial, a fact which contributed greatly to its financial success. The Italian clergy was outraged by "La dolce vita." Because Catholics saw "La dolce vita" as irreligious, the film acquired a reputation as a scandalous celebration of the very decadence which it seems to denounce. Ironically, in response to "La dolce vita", the Via Veneto attempted to conform its image to Fellini's exaggerated imterpretation of it.

This film did much to confirm Fellini's reputation when it was released. Even after two of his film received Oscars for Best Foreign Film in the 1950s, Fellini still had a difficult time finding producers for his work. After the enormous success of "La dolce vita", the winner of the Golden Palm of Cannes in 1960, Fellini received his own film company as a bonus from Angelo Rizzoli, who financed "La dolce vita."

Frederico Fellini has said in several interviews that he considered each of his stories, that is, each of his movies, a period of his life. Identifying so completely with his art, he considered any criticism of his work to be unsuitable and immodest, because he felt judged as a person. Essentially, he was not fond of film criticism. But, in doing what a film critic must do, I must say that Fellini films are not for everyone. Fellini's style is highly original and daring, but often bizarre, and he does a masterful job of making his audience uncomfortable, making them participate in the aesthetic experience.