Rarely, if ever, have I been so perplexed by a film’s critical accolades as I am by those bestowed upon Federico Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita. In step with the central protagonist’s self-indulgent quest for amorous fulfillment, Fellini slogs through a seemingly interminable sequence of disjointed episodes, drily recycling hackneyed interpretations of love, God, and death that never gel into a coherent story—let alone come close to deserving the film’s hallowed “work-of-art” reputation. Compare the entire duration of this rambling tripe with one scene from almost any picture by Ingmar Bergman, Kenji Mizoguchi, or even Roman Polanski, and you should see what I mean. Yes, I know that the typical critics of today crow about the work’s unique “narrative structure,” as if a thoughtless flinging of jumbled ideas into a screenplay can constitute art. After all, the visual “artists” of the past century have generally done the same thing with color on a canvas.
What La Dolce Vita ultimately leaves us with are perceptions as trite and meaningless as those conveyed in the tabloid journalism it purports to excoriate. Swarthy Italian hunk Marcello Mastroianni plays Marcello Rubio, a gossip columnist journeying through Rome to cover . . . well that’s just it, what exactly is he doing there besides being a boy toy and bitching about his life? At least his equally decadent colleague Paparazzo (Walter Santesso)—from whose name the notorious notion of the paparazzi is derived—appears to be doing some work from time to time, as parasitic as his profession is.
Admittedly, the opening shot is arresting: Rubio is part of a team of journalists in a helicopter that is hot on the heels of a second helicopter carrying a statue of Christ toward St. Peters. We’re treated to some magisterial views of the magnificent structure’s dome. But it almost immediately starts to go downhill from there, as he looks down on a trio of babes in bikinis with ogling eyes, gesturing toward them to get their phone numbers.
This scene, while trite, seemed innocuous on first viewing. In retrospect, though, it foreshadows the orgy of hedonism to come. What we have here is an all-too-typical case of a guy who isn’t satisfied with life because he selfishly expects it to constitute a never-ending orgasm. Rather than sporting a suit and tie, he might as well have just tossed on some baggy underwear and let his member peep out when going out for a night on the town. That would have saved him a lot of time when getting down to business with the harlots he loves, who buzz about him like yellow jackets on sugar. Marcello is really just your average stud. Through this unidimensional character, Fellini conveys little more than the personality of a hypocritical douchebag. Moving from fling to fling with the alacrity of a cocaine addict blowing lines on the bathroom counter, he wonders why his fiancée Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) is back at the hotel OD’ing on her poison of choice.
After banging a rich-bitch whore Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) in the flooded home of a prostitute they’ve just met (whoever says truth is stranger than fiction obviously hasn’t watched this movie), the narrative meanders to the film’s iconic episode involving Marcello’s infatuation with a Swedish-American starlet named Sylvia (Anita Ekberg). Boasting a rack that could make even the most well-endowed Miss America contestant envious, this blonde bimbo giggles and teases Marcello to distraction in front of her fianceé Robert (Lex Barker), who’s comically unaware of what’s happening between the two. All this happens while a group of drug-crazed star seekers dance about like banshees.
Interspersed betwixt Marcello’s lubricious exploits is little but hazy philosophizing, courtesy of cardboard excuses for characters like Marcello’s gasbag friend Steiner (Alain Cuny), who holds a pretentious soirée at which a gaggle of pseudo-intellectuals sip cocktails and practice their one-upmanship skills.
And what would an “epic” film be without a glib treatment of religion? In one of the film’s most poorly structured episodes of all, the paparazzi are covering a story in which two children claim to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. Marcello and Emma are there, and Emma believes the vision is real, asking for the Madonna’s help in making Marcello love her. Talk about a scene that’s so diabolically pointless, it could make even a garlic-toting priest hurl.
After watching this ceaseless cobbling-together of nonsense, one question continues to occur to me, as those who’ve read this far are probably expecting: excuse me, Mr. Fellini, may your soul rest in peace, but is this art? I guess to many academicians it is. Probably because they adore heavy-handed symbolism like Sylvia’s tryst with Marcello in the fountain, whose waters are somehow supposed to put a purifying spin on their carnal desires. Just as I’m sure critics are impressed by meaningless banter bandied about at cocktail parties where malcontents imbibe as they incessantly bloviate. Indeed, people like familiar surroundings.
It’s a shame, since Fellini has done much better work than this, the meta-movie 8½ and the light romantic comedy The White Sheik coming readily to mind. Celebrity is a major focus of those films too, but they aren’t dragged down by wannabe-original conceptions of theme or structure. La Dolce Vita, one of the films that inaugurated the cultural nadir of the 196os, paved the way for recent fleshfests like Spring Breakers. Which is to say that those who sermonize about decadence tend to be hypocrites who indulge in nether pleasures themselves. Not to mention that humanity has little use for such sermons anyway. People Magazine can tell us all we need to know.
Joe’s Grade: C