One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie. La dolce vita (1960) is showing on MUBI in many countries in the series Fellini 100.
In the finale of La dolce vita, after the most decadent of the film’s parties, Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) collapses on the beach, faces the camera, and offers world cinema its most iconic shrug. The sequence is laden with symbolism that lends itself to much too literal interpretation: the giant dead sea creature, an ichthys stand-in for Italy's discarded Christ; the angelic girl, a reminder of Marcello’s purer dreams; the loud wind, a modern cacophony that drowns out human connection. But in the ascendant arthouse of 1960, when such subject matter, a cubist structure, and ample sensationalism could break box office records, it wouldn’t do to simply peg Fellini as a didactic philosopher. He was at least as much a showman, and a great value of his showmanship was as a director of innocents—a sympathetic chronicler of the juvenile, the lustful, and the naive, and the wants and fears that attend them. In this respect, Marcello is a natural extension of Fellini’s essential type since The White Sheik: provincials afloat in a larger world, drunk on its colorful details. Only now their world is flush with wealth and access, and their better nature straddles cinema's longest-running Catholic theme: the trouble finding lasting satisfaction in virtue when material pleasure and pain get results so much faster. La dolce vita’s epic tour through Italian society dangles possibilities that Marcello may know should count for more—marriage, romantic love, family ties, religion, intellectual ambition. But each falls away, sometimes from his shortcomings, sometimes from their own ephemerality, until all a Fellini innocent can do is shrug. For all its excess, so much of La dolce vita’s essence is capped by this small pantomime. There is a suavity to it, even a comic timing, and a sad-eyed exhaustion too, like a baleful impresario raising the curtain on their failures. Which is to say, La dolce vita—sins and all—has a seed of innocence of its own, and it’s the common source for both its ballooning sensualism and its genuine dismay. A controversy in its day, the film has long since stopped playing as an exposé of the present or a warning for the future. But the clarity of its ambivalence retains its tragedy and fascination.