‘La Dolce Vita’: The Sour Cherry On Top of an Amazing Year For Movies

By  · Published on December 10th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they let Federico Fellini take them around Rome to psychoanalyze an incredibly cool cat who loves splashing in fountains with the beautiful and famous.

In the #39 (tied) movie on the list, Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) looks for love in some of the right places – namely with the gorgeously fun-loving Syliva (Anita Ekberg) – but his heart isn’t in the correct state of mind.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So hopefully everyone’s ready for an orgy and an explanation of The Sweet Life. And a lesson about how to ask rooftop sunbathers for their phone numbers.

Landon: And how to properly chase a statue of Jesus.

Scott: They can be elusive.

The main question I have after revisiting La Dolce Vita is what it can teach us about how to live The Good Life. Did it instruct you on how to live La Bella Vita?

Landon: That speaks to a core difference between the movie’s reputation and the movie itself. La Dolce Vita has been credited with making 1960s Rome look like the hippest place on earth, but at its core the film is about a vacant man experiencing an ongoing crisis of self.

So, to answer your question, no. But it was beautiful while it lasted.

How about you?

Scott: Other than wanting to learn how to fly a helicopter, and how to photograph like Otello Martelli, I’m not sure the movie has much in the way of life lessons.

Landon: I think the title is an appropriate sentiment. It doesn’t imply something that’s “good” – as in, lasting, sustaining – but something that is passively satisfying and ephemeral. That seems to capture the experiences Marcello seeks throughout the film.

Do you think Marcello is actively looking for a more sustaining aspect of life underneath that? For real happiness? Or are you under the impression that he’s satisfied enough with his own drifting?

Scott: After the car fight where he considers Emma’s perfectly reasonable affection as a smothering element in his life? A woman who so clearly needs him to be made of concrete instead of windsocks? Doubtful.

He was destined for gray hair and the occasional regret, but as for a life-altering shift to deep happiness, he never seems engaged. And, yup, I see the pun with that word choice.

I don’t want to read too much into it, although a movie like this almost invites it, but when Emma is alone in the dark in the middle of nowhere (after biting a dude she loves), she seems more a metaphor for his heart than anything else. He left it on the road.

Please slap me if that sounds pretentious, but also imagine me saying it in an overstuffed leather chair while swirling brandy.

Landon: I would, but I wouldn’t want to ruin that chair.

Scott: Fair call.

Landon: That sounds on the mark. As alluring (I think) as Marcello Mastroianni is, Marcello is certainly a selfish character who skates by on good looks and intricately calculated charm. He has little patience for other people. He’s a misogynist. Yet his moments of anger and impatience seem to be brief realizations – and failures to cope with – his emptiness and anxiety. He’s looking for some transcendent happiness that doesn’t exist, but is always perpetuated by the glitz and glamor that surrounds him.

The famous Trevi fountain moment I think summarizes perfectly the gap between Marcello’s fantasy and his stark, sobering reality.

I’m sure this character got some genuine love as the Vinnie Chase of 1960. But I think to “like” Marcello in any way would miss the critical lens on The Sweet Life that this film explores.

Scott: He’s a faker. There’s a certain type of person who is magnetic because they never let anyone beyond the clever comments and slick facade. No one gets through, because there’s nothing underneath.

Although I like the Vinnie Chase connection. All in the pursuit of the appearance. But maybe we’re coming at it from the wrong angle. Is there something inherently wrong with chasing beauty and only beauty?

Or is that what Marcello is actually doing?

Landon: That’s one thing that’s strange about this film’s reception. For the world outside of Rome, this was an introduction to glitzy Rome, or what Paolo Sorrentino’s new film calls “The Great Beauty.” Yet the film itself is less a portrait and an introduction to a metropolitan scene than it is a critique of a scene that was already well established.

Scott: Marcello is a nice ambassador and tourist.

Landon: This movie draws me in and pushes me out of the Sweet Life for all three hours. It’s always alluring, but also always alienating.

But to answer your question, I think there are two moments that suggest Marcello is looking for something more.

  1. His relationship with Steiner
  2. That enigmatic ending

Scott: Steiner represents a different life, for sure, although I’m not sure what it says that he kills himself. After killing his children.

Although I read the ending differently. I’m not sure that Marcello looks down leviathan in the net and thinks, hey, that’s definitely me.

Landon: Well to the Steiner aspect first, Marcello sees Steiner as somebody who has it figured out, not because of his home life (Marcello clearly demonstrates no interest in that) but because of his intellect. He seems to have an orientation towards the world that’s rich and rewarding. But in that monologue after the party almost exactly halfway through the film, he reveals that he hates silence because it feels empty and foreboding, and he has a rather dispassionate and coldly distant relationship to the world. Steiner’s life seemed like a way out of his funk, but in that moment Steiner’s actually voicing his suicide note.

While this movie doesn’t deal in direct causality, perhaps Steiner’s tragic end undergirds Marcello’s more aggressive and violent behavior after.

He delves head first into the spectacle.

Scott: Imagine you idolize a man who then displays severe doubts – and then proves he cannot recover from them. It would be devastating. In that way, Marcello is still like a child who has realized his father isn’t Superman. Although I’m unconvinced that Marcello is doing anything more than giving lip service to the idea of growing up. He seems more content to worship the idealized life than to strive (or sacrifice anything) to get it.

What about the ending tips you toward enlightenment?

Landon: Well, in none of these examples do I posit that Marcello is seeking to be a responsible adult or a traditional life. What he’s naively (and, per your apt comparison, childishly) looking for is this undefinable “something else” that exists beyond the way life currently is. And he thinks that because of The Sweet Life’s surface, it exists somewhere, or with someone, within there.

And that’s what I think the young girl’s unheard words illustrate – that perpetual enigma, or The Answer, that lies just out of his reach. I’d like to think the girl was never really saying anything important or consequential, but in his view of the world, it’s a missed opportunity to find that thing that he’s invented in his mind that’s always out of reach.

He’s Don Draper, basically.

Scott: Or all of us at the end of Lost In Translation. He knows there’s something missing, that there’s something else, but he doesn’t know how to begin to seek it (or what price it will cost).

If I can go back to the Trevi Fountain and the concept of tourism for a second, have you ever watched that scene back-to-back with the iconic, location-sharing scenes in (the super Commie-loving) Roman Holiday?

Landon: Ha, no. What’d you discover?

Scott: Well, I thought it was interesting that Roman Holiday showed us the city’s sites a few years before La Dolce Vita, so I’m curious as to what audiences would have thought when seeing it after William Wyler’s incredibly happy, fairytale romance.

Both are about ultimately doomed relationships, but their tones couldn’t be more different. Unless you can imagine Gregory Peck slapping Audrey Hepburn at the Spanish Steps. Still, Marcello manages to find a fantasy moment where Peck and Hepburn had shared theirs years before.

Landon: And might the promise of a Hollywood style, closure-filled, all-fulfilling love with a movie star be what Marcello thinks he needs to be happy? This movie (and that moment in particular) seems to be about the artifice of a Hollywood-style spectacle.

Scott: Wow. Yes. That’s spot on. A man who got to see 8 1/2 five and a half years before it was made. And said, “Yes! That’s the right way to live! And that guy looks strangely familiar!”

Landon: He somehow managed to shave 5 and a half years off. Mastroianni does age remarkably between those two films.

Scott: It was all that running around Roma.

Landon: Speaking of other films to compare this to, I always used to think about that other 1960 Italian arthouse classicL’Avventura – as the flip side to La Dolce Vita’s coin. But now they each seem to be doing similar things in terms of existential crises, with one on an island and the other in a city. La Dolce Vita might even be just as dark of a film.

Scott: And once again, 1960 proves itself to be a whizbang year for movies.

Landon: Between those two, Breathless, and Psycho, it’s hard to think of a bigger game-changer.

Scott: And Peeping Tom!

Landon: Or a greater concentration of pessimism. This seems to be the year in which more films than ever gave up the idea of happy endings and relevant and truthful.

Scott: Maybe they were fed up with Hollywood sunsets.

Landon: With Marcello arguably becoming the prototype for art film protagonists of this era: meandering, cold, not nice to women.

Especially not nice to women.

Scott: Wriggling and trapped in a net of his own making.

Landon: It’s worth noting that Fellini’s work was characterized mostly by social realism up to this point. Sure, he made fairytales, but they were with considerable class consciousness. So for him to switch to depicting the leisure class is something of a big change. It’s odd now to realize that his most celebrated works are those of the rich and famous.

It speaks to how much we still buy in to The Sweet Life.

Scott: Everything just looks so damned pretty.

You’re right, though. “Sweet” is such a fantastic label here. High-incuding, pleasurable, energy-creating – but it’s not sustainable.

Landon: Happiness requires more than splashing around in a fountain.

Scott: Hey, we got a life lesson after all.

Next Time: Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows

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