the masked man's classic films club - week 3: La Dolce Vita

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the masked man's classic films club - week 3: La Dolce Vita

Postby the masked man » 07 Jun 2006, 20:55

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Released in 1960, this is probably the most celebrated film in Italian history, and is something of a landmark for director Federico Fellini. Previously, the director's work had broadly followed in the dominant 'neo-realist' style of post-war Italian cinema. Yet his work also showed an interest in the carnivalesque, frowned upon by that genre's ascetic aesthetic. Here, he breaks with the genre completely in a film that both celebrates and condemns middle-class hedonism in contemporary Rome.

It's not so much that the film actually breaks with realistic representation - there are no fantasy sequences as such. But everything seems larger than life, from the famous opening sequence - a giant statue of Christ is lofted above Rome by a helicopter - to the exaggerated clothing fashions on display. Also, whereas realism demanded tight storytelling, this has a loose, episodic structure. Later Fellini films would move into more colourful, imaginative territory, though he'd lose some artictic disciplaine in the process.

The scenario is simple enough - Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a talented writer whoring his skills by writing for a celebrity-obsessed newpaper, wanders across Rome on numerous assignments. He chaperones an American film actress, argues with his girlfriend, takes his father to a burlesque club and attends several parties along the way.

It's easy to see Marcello (born in provincial Italy) as a cipher for Rimini-born Fellini and his own doubts about the use he was making of his talents. It's a morality tale, watching a character descend into cynical nihilsm, but it's also not that simple. Fellini shoots Roman nightlife with fascination, and realises that modern life's not all bad, encompassing, for example, tolerance of homosexuality. He understands how seductive this all is, after post-war austerity. Furthermore, he paints other aspects of Italian life with an equally withering glance - religion is reduced to reluctantly sanctioning an obviously fraudulent 'miracle' (with disastrous consequences), while an old-fashioned intellectual who Marcello initially admires proves to be totally lacking in moral courage. Overall, it's a despairing picture.

Yet it is all shot with great vigour. If the cliché about European 'art' cinema is that it's all about stillness and contemplation, this film turns all that on its head - it's full of movement and bustle, with gleaming set-pieces. It's ambivalent about Hollywood glamour, but respects it enough to allow Anita Ekberg's US starlet the most iconic scenes in the movie.

Watching the film again, I was struck how the real tragedy of Marcello's life is that he can't get close to anyone. He rebuffs his admittedly clingy girlfriend; he can only make small talk with his father, who turns down the offer of more serious talk; his favourite intellectual lets him down badly; and everyone else is too busy with the social whirl to stay in any place for too long. Marcello's popular - he gets invited to all the exclusive parties - but no-one really knows him.

The film's audacious black-and-white photography helps keep this film fresh, even if, at a little under three hours, it does contain longueurs. The main theme - of the obsession with celebrity culture - is, of course, pretty relevant to today's zeitgeist. Indeed, this film is credited with introducing the word 'paparazzi' to the English language. Yet there is one offputting feature for a modern audience: the (then common) Italian practice of assembling a multi-national cast, filming them speaking a variety of languages and dubbing all the dialogue unconvincingly after filming is finished. To me, this is far more annoying than the back-projections that featured in last week's discussion of "Vertigo". This practice only died out recently.

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Postby Harry Webster » 07 Jun 2006, 20:58

As you say it's very long.
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Postby the masked man » 07 Jun 2006, 20:59

Harry Webster wrote:As you say it's very long.


Has Obvious Alf been using your log-on again? :wink:

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Postby Sneelock » 07 Jun 2006, 21:13

I think it's a staggering film.
certain reviewers accused Fellini of being a 'moralist', I don't think he is. I think the approach he's taken is to strap on the seat belt and try to keep up with Marcello.

I love it largely for how episodic it is. these could have been a string of short films but they aren't. There's a culmulative effect. Watching it is like staying up all night and living that way. As much as I like "I Vittolini" I think this is when Fellini is starting to fire on all cylinders.

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Postby harvey k-tel » 07 Jun 2006, 21:19

Andiamo a mangera spaghetti, umm umm.
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Postby The Write Profile » 09 Jun 2006, 07:15

It's a pretty brutal film, isn't it? Certainly not a "date flick," by any stretch of the imagination (I took a female friend to a reissued print of it a couple or so years back and she found the underlying misogony throughout totally unpleasant. Bad choice, almost as bad as the time I took another female friend to see Dancer in the Dark, but that's another story...)


I hate to invoke Pauline Kael again (and yes, I do read other critics!), but there is something in her view that, it's so determined to appear condemning of Italian high society's hedonism and degradation that it's occasionally rather silly, if you step away from it (Kael's flippant remark that "Perhaps we start to condemn this lifestyle only when we've had a lot of it").

But again, that's the point- it is excessive as a film, not so much in its composition, but its overall tone: the incredible starkness of the B&W photography, which seems as claustrophobic as it is lush, the swooping overhead shots (the opening sequence, shot from a helicopter, is startlingly brash). Moreover there's the sense that this film seems to exist in a loop, you return to it after not seeing it in a while and you notice that the characters have remained in this self-enclosed little world that seems arely out of adolescence, morally speaking.

I think it's a wonderfully gripping film, but it's a hard one to take. Might write more on it later.
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Postby James R » 09 Jun 2006, 07:20

Can't get into it and never could. First time I tried watching it, I struggled with some difficulty to get to the end and had to fight the urge to just switch it off. Second time I tried watching it (in the interests of fairness, whenever I find myself not liking a generally acknowledged classic, I try and give it another go a few years later to see if the passage of time and the process of aging makes me appreciate it any better; I've gradually come to terms with the work of Robert Bresson in this way), I gave into that urge after only about 20 minutes. It was boring me to death just a little too much for my liking.

I dislike Fellini as a general rule, it should be said, with the exception of possibly and—perhaps oddly—Ginger and Fred.
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Postby The Modernist » 09 Jun 2006, 08:17

James R wrote:Can't get into it and never could. First time I tried watching it, I struggled with some difficulty to get to the end and had to fight the urge to just switch it off. Second time I tried watching it (in the interests of fairness, whenever I find myself not liking a generally acknowledged classic, I try and give it another go a few years later to see if the passage of time and the process of aging makes me appreciate it any better; I've gradually come to terms with the work of Robert Bresson in this way), I gave into that urge after only about 20 minutes. It was boring me to death just a little too much for my liking.

I dislike Fellini as a general rule, it should be said, with the exception of possibly and—perhaps oddly—Ginger and Fred.


I haven't seen it for many years, but I must say boredom was my main memory of it.
I liked it for the suits and scooters, superficial I know! But there didn't seem to be much else to it. One of the problems I had with it was Fellini was clearly enthralled with this world the narrative was supposedly criticising so the film seemed to be moving in contradictory directions for me.

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Postby Still Baron » 10 Jun 2006, 22:53

The Unique Modernist! wrote:I liked it for the suits and scooters, superficial I know!


Me too. Too bad it's so nocturnal, or we might've gotten some more good sunglasses to boot!
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Postby Charlie O. » 11 Jun 2006, 00:48

I saw it for the first (and, so far, only) time about ten years ago.

I enjoyed it thoroughly (which I can't say for the handful of other Fellini's I've seen) AND couldn't believe how long it was. Each time the film seemed to be winding to a close, another episode would start up. But I can't say I minded.

I'm impressed we've gotten this far without anyone mentioning Nico...

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Postby harvey k-tel » 12 Jun 2006, 21:55

Charlie O. wrote:I'm impressed we've gotten this far without anyone mentioning Nico...


ahem...

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Postby Charlie O. » 12 Jun 2006, 23:45

Yer wot?

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Postby The Write Profile » 30 Aug 2006, 07:24

Just as an aside, any fans of the film could do worse than check out the 2-Disc Criterion Edition of La Dole Vita, if only for its glorious print and the rather insightful commentary from noted critic Richard Schikel. Perhaps they could've included more contemporary features about the film's reception, interviews with Felinni, etc, but then again maybe the film spells it all out for the viewer. Certainly, few films seem so utterly wrapped up in their own little scene, even if it doesn't add up to much than the celebration and pitilessness of hedonism. Incidentally, I like this final sentence from Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay on the film:
Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw "La Dolce Vita'' in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom "the sweet life'' represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello's world; Chicago's North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello's age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.


A little sentimental perhaps, but beneath all the cynicism and misanthopry, it still enjoys its lifestyle, even if it wants to condemn the less savoury aspects.
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Postby Neon Boy » 30 Aug 2006, 08:50

Sneelock wrote:As much as I like "I Vittolini" I think this is when Fellini is starting to fire on all cylinders.


Nah Fellini started firing on all cylinders with La Strada which is his first great film. Anybody who fings La Dolce Vita boring should check out this and Nights Of Cabiria which they might prefer.
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Postby The Write Profile » 18 Nov 2006, 01:40

Just out of curiosity, how much of a break did this represent from his later "neo-realist" work. I see that Madman/Umbrella have gone to the effort of releasing a lot of Fellini's early "classics," (La Strada, Ill Vittolini et al), so I'm keen to check them out, not least because they've been very generous with the special features. As for La Dolche Vita, the film's entirely enamoured with its lifestyle, as much as it tries to condemn it. And I think that's what gives it its spark, really. A close friend of mine saw it in a new print and she utterly loathed the misogony and deep-seated cyncism about it, whereas I just like the look of it as much as anything else!
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Postby the masked man » 18 Nov 2006, 08:22

It's actually a fairly natural development - there was already a flamboyant elemant to Fellini's films that contradicted the dourness of neo-realism. La Strada is about circus performers, while Il Vitteloni has a carnival scene. La Dolce Vita just took the carnivalesque atmosphere further.

Personally, I'm not as sold on La Strada as some - I remember finding Giulietta Masina's mugging highly annoying. However, Il Vitteloni is wonderful, a lovingly crafted account of provincial life, set in Fellini's hometown of Rimini.

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Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 18 Nov 2006, 15:14

Great thread.

I saw the film when I was in my early 20's and just didn't get it. I hadn't given it another chance until a few months ago when I rented it along wih Ikiru (which somehow I had never seen) and decided to watch them both on consecutive nights. The cumulative effect of both films was like a freight train. Hard not to be compelled to examine your life after taking all of that in.

Some months later I find myself still haunted by the end of this film. Just like the freeze frame at the end of The 400 Blows, Mastroianni's reaction to the girl on the beach is simply and heartbreakingly unforgettable. But the lack of ambiguity in La Dolce Vita's ending is what really brings it home. It is the fact that Mastroianni does recognize the girl and does understand what she represents that makes his reaction so chilling. It is his resignation to his lot in life that really kicked me in the gut. He simply lacks the courage to change course, and worse - he knows it and has accepted it. It is one thing if an animal starts to like his cage. But it is tragic if he hates it passionately but fears walking out of an open door.

Amazing film.
Last edited by Davey the Fat Boy on 30 Jan 2007, 16:43, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby The Modernist » 19 Nov 2006, 20:20

Structurally it has got quite a lot in common with Italian neo -realism: long takes, long shots and deep focus, non-causal episodic narrative. However its misanthropic tone is obviously a long way from Italian neo-realism's humanism.