Directed by Federico Fellini
With Marcello Mastroianni (Marcello), Anouk Aimée (Maddalena), Yvonne Furneaux (Emma), Anita Ekberg (Sylvia), Alain Cuny (Steiner)
Two helicopters flow over Rome: one is carrying a statue of the Christ and the other has on board a couple of journalists reporting on the unusual air cargo bound for the Holy See. But they find enough time to hover above a modern building to catch the attention of some young ladies sunbathing on the top. This opening sequence hints at the dimensions Federico Fellini wants to give his movie.
Long shots are a fixture; they capture characters moving most of the time inside large rectangular frames featuring either vast urban landscapes or spacious rooms. The adventure starts in the sky, and then they move down long hallways and big streets, visit monuments, from the Vatican to a celebrated fountain, and end their journey on a seaside. The story demands as much space as possible to develop and to breathe; the expansive and multifaceted space it gets possesses a cosmic dimension that readily engulfs you.
Rome, where all the ways lead, Rome, which was an imperial capital, Rome, that enthralls the hero, still occupies its geographical place, but its shapes have changed. Fellini chooses to shoot modern neighborhoods, like the EUR, with their concrete buildings and unfinished streets. Old Roman streets of the inner center are barely shown, and only because they please Sylvia, the foreign actress. Sometimes, the action moves elsewhere, in the rural periphery, in rather out of date places. The city is clearly in the midst of physical transformation, caught in a rush to modernize and to grow, a sea change that carries the characters along.
Marcello, the hero we meet in the chopper, is a writer. His story tells of the dubious success of an intellectual man who ekes out a living writing on celebrities and popular events even as he yearns for more ambitious scribblings. His main sidekick is a freelance photographer who is always looking for a celebrity and tends to work and live with other like-minded colleagues as if in a swarm. An actor of the modern-day development of the mass media, he is Paparazzo – a fictional surname that has turned thanks to the success of the film into a common substantive, now widely used (and despised).
The other big affair in Marcello’s life is the women. He likes to seduce and in the second sequence of the film he spends the night with a friend, Maddalena, a cynical aristocrat, at a prostitute’s home, adding a whiff of scandal to his philandering. He falls again in love with Sylvia, a famous foreign actress whose trip he is supposed to cover, and he tries to satisfy all her whims, which won’t extend to the bedroom, however. Later, as he wanders in an abandoned castle with other guests, he lets an exuberant artist take him away to get her own pleasure. But his womanizing inevitably hits a wall: his partner Emma, who first appears as she tries to commit suicide. Their relationship is tumultuous as Marcello doesn’t want to quit her or to accept her will and as jealousy and disappointment gnaw at Emma’s nerves. Their rowdy love affair runs in parallel with Marcello’s adventures and near the end finds a memorable and histrionic expression as the couple violently quarrels in a deserted road during much of a night – before spending the following day in their bed. It could be that, apart from any deep feeling hard to decipher, even for him or her, Marcello sticks with Emma because his rake’s progress actually moves backwards. As already noted, Sylvia isn’t interested in sex while his relationship with Maddalena leads nowhere as she wants to be free in her pursuit of pleasure. His romantic affairs are just idle caprices; in the end, Marcello may be obsessed with women, but he can’t get any satisfaction.
If the female half of the world is a letdown, the male half is no less frustrating. Marcello’s friendship with Paparazzo and his colleagues is rather superficial. The visit his father pays to him is only a reminder of the emotional distance that has long prevailed between them. The strongest bond he feels with a man involves Steiner, an influential Roman intellectual. The evening Marcello spends at his flat is the quietest and more sophisticated moment during the long stroll that is his story. Yet, the distinguished and serene atmosphere conceals a crack-up, Steiner’s view on his life. He sees it as flawed, claiming he’s going nowhere for he is too serious to be an amateur and not enough to be a scholar; he worryingly doubts his children can have a decent future. This intimate despair leads to an unexpected and shocking conclusion when he later chooses to kill his kids and then himself.
This loss proves a turning point for Marcello. In the final part of “La dolce vita”, he is transformed: no smart dark suits but flashy white attire; no ambition for literature but a job in the public relations business; not a word on Emma but a garrulous participation at a raucous and drunken party to celebrate the divorce of a lady. The partygoers wallow in indecency and stupidity and Marcello performs the duties of a master of ceremony, in a scandalous manner, ready to humiliate and keen to provoke. His stroll has ended in an impasse; the final picture on a seaside as a sea monster is caught by fishermen depicts a man on the brink of isolation and dislocation.
To describe it a fall from grace may not be that relevant. The phrase supposes the movie began in a jolly good atmosphere – as noticed earlier, it starts with a scandalous night with a female friend right away followed by a suicide attempt – and posits a moralistic worldview that would rather leave Fellini unconcerned (indeed the film caused outrage when it was rewarded at the Cannes festival and then released for featuring immoral characters’ antics without blinking). Rather, the movie feels like a poignant depiction of an irresolute, disaffected fellow seeking to find a sense of purpose and of happiness. His tragedy lies in his inability to connect with suitable partners – even in Steiner’s case, since he does acknowledge to his friend he is not often in touch with him and then loses him forever.
The most telling image, and the most poignant perhaps, takes place in the nightclub he goes with his father. In a turn of the revue, a clown walks on the floor playing a melancholy air on the trumpet, trying to stir the stranded balloons left by previous dancers. The instrument blows a wrong note and the clown glances at Marcello’s table. Marcello glances back. The trumpet starts again the melody and the clown moves away, the balloons following him in close ranks. A single and accidental instant speaks volumes as the existential malaise of Marcello suddenly finds an expression worthy of it, a malaise that he reluctantly acknowledges. The festive milieu and the sweet life give his personal life a material reality, but they are also illusions which can’t always paper over uncomfortable feelings.
This talent to instill eerie, distressing or dreamy moments in a lively and realistic environment was emerging in “I Vitelloni”. Now Fellini takes it on a grander scale, turning a whole film into a journey in a man’s soul as he moves to ultimate failure, one step after another. Lost in a modern world and lonely because he fails to connect, Marcello looks like a tragic hero for our times. He struggles with modern-day travails and his fight meets an end that is both tragic and grotesque. However, in this sullen finale, the candid smile of the girl on the beach invites us to sympathize with Marcello, just like she seems to do even if he fails to remember her; after all, he may not be more fragile and fallible than we may already be ourselves.