Ah, the death rattle of decadent European society! A favored trope of mid-century art cinema directors from Renoir to Antonioni, it receives perhaps its definitive treatment in La Dolce Vita. Federico Fellini's coolly damning masterpiece observes a vast array of celebrities, scenesters, performers, artists, dilettantes, would-be intellectuals, and hangers-on of all shapes and sizes—every one of them fiddling while Rome burns, or at least creaks under the weight of its own spiritual malaise. Our guide is Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a highly connected but vaguely disaffected journalist who glides through the streets of Rome in search of leads, women, and the party that will offer distraction for a few precious hours.
I've always had my suspicions about films like La Dolce Vita. Chronicles of gilded-age debauchery too often view their characters less as flesh-and-blood individuals than walking totems of society's various ills. Attempts at understanding get replaced by lip-smacking voyeurism undergirded by moralistic judgment. Is there not something a little easy about all this? Doesn't the difficult task of empathy ultimately produce more fruitful, challenging works than gazing on the deluded and damned with barely veiled contempt? At least modern-day films with such impulses can feed off the heat of the contemporary moment. La Dolce Vita runs the double risk of having its vision come off as dated as well as constricted. The enveloping richness of Otello Martelli's black-and-white cinematography, the iconic weariness of Mastroianni's sunglass-shrouded features, the lengthy sequences of dance-until-dawn abandon: They've become the stuff of clip-show reels and film history textbooks.
La Dolce Vita doesn't escape the trap of pat condemnation, particularly in its final stretches. (A product of his time, Fellini still doesn't win any points in my book by using the appearance of connotatively queer characters to signal upticks in general moral depravity.) Watching it for a second time, though, the film's social censures felt much less important than its boundless zeal and curiosity. It's a film that more or less earns its right to criticize because it has bothered to look deeply at the world it seeks to assess. This has much to do with the film's structure. Fellini and co-screenwriters Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Brunello Rondi (as well as an uncredited Pier Paolo Pasolini) offer a series of vignettes that sketch Marcello's world and offer insight into his emotional torpor. Each revolves around a public gathering of sorts, be it a low-key grouping of friends and notables at the home of intellectual and gentle family man Steiner (Alain Cuny) or a raucous jaunt through the ruins of an aristocrat's aging castle. Their disconnected quality mirrors the weightless nature of Marcello's existence, floating from one encounter to the next with little thought to what came before or after. The multitude of characters that Marcello encounters in these buzzing assemblages over the film's almost-three-hour running time gives La Dolce Vita a novelistic density. Fellini offers his fair share of fools and sinners, but makes sure to toss in some sages and saints as well. Like Marcello, we become intoxicated by the possibilities each new set piece holds, even as we are made increasingly aware of the disillusionments that mark their conclusions.
Beauty and emptiness rub elbows constantly throughout. The film's famous opening image finds a helicopter hoisting a statue of Jesus, hands benevolently outstretched, over the sun-bleached Roman outskirts. The sculpture's flight has a surreal serenity, even as it establishes the dominant motif of once-meaningful ideas reduced to fleeting spectacle. Later, a purported sighting of the Madonna in an abandoned expanse outside of Rome prompts a horde of grasping bystanders and a phalanx of the film's omnipresent news photographers to surge forth to grab branches of the tree where she materialized, turning spiritual pilgrimage into greed-fueled frenzy. Whole sections of La Dolce Vita take place among empty and forgotten spaces such as this. These floodlit, forlorn roads and soggy apartments stand in pointed contrast to the monochromatic elegance of Rome's nightclubs and penthouses, suggesting both the characters' insulated existence and the inevitability of its decay. That Fellini and Martelli find seductive plays of light and shadow within both sets of landscapes speaks to the artists' view of Rome as a visual continuum rather than a binary. Like the people inhabiting them, the spaces have their own character and individuated qualities, and are considered as such.
What is happiness within the film's world? Fellini offers no easy answers. Marcello's dalliances with a variety of women all end in disappointment or betrayal, largely emanating from Marcello himself. Flashes of possibility radiate out from almost all of them, though, particularly during wealthy heiress Maddalena's (Anouk Aimée) drunken confession of love to Marcello. She offers to marry Marcello while speaking from another room via an echo chamber, a potent visualization of their intimate estrangement. When Marcello finally returns his affections, Maddalena has already begun making out with another man. Domesticity itself offers little solace. We see Marcello's desperate, long-suffering girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) only when she rages against Marcello's betrayals and emotional distance. Marcello's own father (Annibale Ninchi) remained apart throughout Marcello's youth, and spends most of his visit with his adult son courting a young French dancer in the Cha-Cha-Cha nightclub. Particularly wrenching is the fate of Steiner, whose seemingly loving domestic life masks unknowably dark and violent undercurrents. Wracked by these uncertain tides, Marcello's spiritual drift becomes understandable, if still steeped in selfishness.
The endless possibility of pleasure within the world drives Marcello, even as its ultimate elusiveness haunts him. The same might be said of Fellini himself. He may observe much of the bacchanalia with a steady, at times weary, eye, but the sheer amount of bustling, dancing, screaming, pontificating, drinking, and general living that Fellini squeezes into La Dolce Vita belies any attempt to peg him as above it all. Mastroianni makes for a perfect avatar. Watch how his heavy eyes gleam when they meet with a potential lover. Then look how they fade into worry and regret once the party is over or the affair consummated. He can't help himself, and one senses that neither can Fellini. Photographers invade almost every segment of La Dolce Vita, hectoring Marcello for access and clicking away with abandon as their subjects laugh or cry, fight or embrace. They're a potent reminder of the society's shameless narcissism and obsession with the prolonging of fleeting experience. In their recording mania, might there be a hint of auto-critique? Not sure, but the very possibility speaks to the dynamic, conflicting impulses that animate the film's quietly savage and despairing spirit. The good life remains but a dream, but the lust for life is tireless, torturous, unabated.