Of all the canonical classics I can think of, La Dolce Vita is the one that can most persuasively claim to be about Everything. Well, “Everything” may be an exaggeration. But it’s about love, sex, god, religion, fame, celebrity, mass culture, art, the working class, the poor, the aristocracy, the intelligentsia, men, women, fathers, sons, growing old, isolation, the modern world, and Italy. To put it more simply, it’s about a personal and societal quest to fill the void.
In all likelihood, a new viewer will feel lost. The quintessential La Dolce Vita experience—what happened to me, and what may, in all probability, happen to you—is having no idea what to think while you watch it, but being unable to get it out of your head for a week afterward. On reflection (and on second viewing), what at first appears aimless is revealed to be a rich and carefully constructed array of parables, symbols, and vignettes. It doesn’t have a plot so much as escalating variations on a theme: one man (Marcello Mastroianni) wavering back and forth between earthly decadence and spiritual transcendence. Overarching conflict is almost secondary—what we have instead is a string of floating episodes, where the camera sits back and wryly observes as our hero (or is it anti-hero?) drifts through different settings and situations.
Obviously, this is not an inviting structure for a film that barely manages to clock in at under 3 hours. Fellini is a director of sequences; he sets them up and lets them run. But by the time the lights come up, so much of it haunts the memory. Within its episode and vignettes are insights, poetry, comedy, drama, and enigmatic beauty that seems to exist at the exact intersection of reality and dreams. There are very valid criticisms: you may say that it’s artificially stretched to epic length, that it became enshrined in the canon on the basis of shocking people at the time, or that its symbolism leaves so little room for ambiguity that it becomes an intellectual exercise more than anything else. (The fish = Christ, etc.). But it’s still a rich and fascinating cinematic treasure trove, and to get anything out of it is to agree to play by its rule. It is, in a sense, not a story so much as a a party: one that begins with tentative fascination, and turns sickened and exhausted by the end.
I once saw a summary of Fellini that said his films are about characters trapped between the Earth and sky. La Dolce Vita is his film that wobbles the most compellingly between the two: Fellini presents a “real” Italy, but with an otherworldliness starting to leak in around the edges–call it God, or magic, or the supernatural, whatever you like. It lingers over the film like a disembodied presence, giving La Dolce Vita perhaps the most bewitching tone of any Fellini film, and catching him at a transition before he moved into full-blown fantasias for the rest of his career.
It is, in short, a strange film, a haunting film, and a beautiful film. And it’s worth the effort.
9 out of 10