May 2014 Blind Spot: La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)

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This month I’m crossing a very important blind spot off my list, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. This the third film from the director’s filmography that I’ve had the pleasure to watch after 8 1/2 and La Strada. I believe these three are regarded as his most well known films and possibly his best work. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

This elegant epic depicts the life of a tabloid journalist, Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni, trying to understand the meaning of life in the modern, postwar city of Rome.

Anyone complaining about the lack of events in this film probably dozed off while viewing, watched something else or is just ignorant. There are so many things happening in La Dolce Vita, it’s hard to sum up the whole experience, but there sure were a lot of things unfolding on screen.

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Firstly, I want to say that the film is, at least, worth watching just for the gorgeous B&W cinematography, the elegant costumes and the stunning women. For some, the costumes and cinematography, may not be their cup of tea, but you have to agree that the women were just incredibly feminine and beautiful. I looked at them much like Marcello did, like they were the most delicate piece you’ve ever seen. I don’t want to come out as overly obsessive on this topic but you have to agree the ladies made the film better. It’s strange that socialites that appear in tabloids these days (not that I care about them) lack the spark that these women had which is sad. The film depicted a reality very much happening today, of girls wanting to join the higher class by appearing in papers for doing nothing, but the women in La Dolce Vita had something special, something of those times that has since disappeared.

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What upset many people watching the film was the lack of plot, very noticeable. The film has no drive, no point to get to and no conventional structure, it’s more presented in segments all tied to our main character, Marcello. Personally, I didn’t find this to be a problem, I didn’t know what to expect and I liked that. I had enough confidence in the director to  put myself in his hands letting him tell his story in his own way. The acclaim of the film helped, watching the film I thought “this has to lead somewhere”, I will get to a point where all this chain of unrelated experiences will make sense. And they did. You get a sense along the way, of course, but after letting the film sink in, you come up with your own interpretation.

I liked the film a lot, despite the length, but I didn’t want to like it because I had to, because it’s La Dolce Vita. I will need to watch it again in a few years to get a better opinion of it and to appreciate its power.

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Mainly, it focuses on this man’s attempt at understanding his own life, his role in the world, and what kind of life should he live. Frankly I found the main character to be a bit spoiled, not really putting his life in balance. He is very good-looking, excels at his job which represents working with a class of people he enjoys spending time with, and is very much loved by a woman willing to do everything for him. I felt like he enjoys more sitting in his own misery together with these rich and lost people than making a serious decision for himself. There is a level of maturity that needs reaching to be and think like an adult that Marcello hasn’t got to yet. Maybe his struggle is that he can do better.

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At one point it seems like he has found an ideal way of life in his friend Steiner’s family life. I understand that he becomes alienated after the tragic turn in his friend’s life but he didn’t seem like getting to action before that. In my opinion his friend’s life is the real dolce vita, the rest is sweet too but not for a very long time.

My own interpretation is that we are shown many beautiful ways of living in this film, but we as well as Marcello have to identify what is the best way to live a beautiful life. Too bad he got constantly alienated by his life experiences and never got to choose what’s best for him.

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I have to mention this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar win, La Grande Bellezza, a film that borrowed a lot from Fellini’s film. I recognized many things while watching La Dolce Vita, some deeply visible like one of the women invited at the castle party wearing a cloak costume, in the segment with the singer Nico and the seance. A similar costume was worn by the character Sabrina in the film also in a scene at dawn after another lavish party. Other aspects were less visible like the theme of estrangement presented in both films with Paolo Sorrentino’s film being more vocal and poetic about its message.

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The cast of La Dolce Vita, a very large one, has the necessary vitality  for bringing to life the great city of Rome with all its extravagance and elegance. Marcello Mastroianni is a fine lead for this film, with all his stylish costumes and fascinated and lost looks that he showed for so many times. He nailed that part the most in the rather short scene at the Trevi Fountain. Anita Ekberg, a doll of a woman, shined as the vivacious American actress Sylvia, an embodiment of Marilyn Monroe (she even mentions her being a friend), a both innocent and sexy character at the same time. Another beauty of Rome is personified by Anouk Aimee, which stunned me in 1966’s A Man and A Woman. She plays an elegant heiress who may or may not have deep feelings for our Marcello. One of the more expressive female characters is Yvonne Furneaux’s Emma, the main character’s fiancee, a beautiful but very jealous woman who had the misfortune of being in love with Marcello the man-child. Most of the other women that appear episodically are in the same pattern of beautiful, intelligent and classy, with some wiser than the others.

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One thing I noticed watching this film was how Fellini and his cinematographer, Otello Martelli, position the characters in a frame. A precision that I found to be beautiful that maybe was intentional or not. Anyway, it was pretty to watch. La Dolce Vita is actually one of the most beautiful B&W films I have seen so far. Using the Blu-ray edition helped a lot. Imagine seeing this film on a big screen in the best quality possible. It makes for a fantastic viewing experience. Another thing reminding me of La Grande Bellezza (should have been the other way around) is the architecture, the beautiful buildings sans the ugly apartment buildings at the beginning. Marcello always seems to have a moment of quiet desperation next to a majestic construction.

5

Up until now I’ve talked almost positively of this film. What really bothered me was the dubbing. So distracting, put me out of the film every time it happened. Bothered me the most in the scene where Marcello and Emma are fighting in the car near the end. Yvonne Furneaux surely wasn’t speaking Italian then. Marcello was but she was clearly doing something else which destroyed an important scene for me. I read somewhere that Fellini had a habit of recording the voices after shooting scenes. The film has an international cast so that happened a lot of times.

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The message of La Dolce Vita hasn’t come across to me in its complete form and I don’t think it should on a first watch. I enjoyed the film as a pure cinematic pleasure, just seeing the images made me happy even if I didn’t understand all of them. However, it’s not as difficult as 8 1/2 which shouldn’t be the first film to start Fellini’s filmography. More viewings of this wonderful film will shed light on my feelings about the protagonist’s hardships as time goes on. Sometimes you need to experience some things yourself to understand a piece of culture, just like with a book.

La Dolce Vita is certainly an important film, that has many to offer. From the elegant costumes and (actors’ clothes haven’t moved me more as in this film) the lush B&W cinematography presenting the glorious and exciting Rome to the coolness of the actors and its epic scope and endless ambition, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is an outstanding piece of cinema that studies the universal theme of finding the best life to live.

A+

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