Movies, by their nature, are fantasies. They edit time, they select viewpoints and compositions, they use lighting, sound and scripting in fantastical ways to make even the most mundane of situations into a narrative of some ilk. This is, by and large, why we go to see movies. We embrace that fantastical element completely as soon as we pay our ticket, or in this case our NetFlix fee. However, this knowledge of the fantastic nature of film can be used for good and for evil, because as much as the nature of film is fantasy, the essential quest of film is truth. This is why we can happily watch a movie about men fighting laser battles in space a long time ago in a galaxy far far away as long as it obeys internal logic and expresses inner truths, but we get upset and annoyed when a film about a banker in Detroit has its main character make small decisions that do not make any logical sense.
One genre of film in which the fantasy frequently lies is the story of The Awesome Cad Versus the Uptight Straights. This kind of movie sets up a false “truth” that anyone who claims to be happy with their middle-class, work-a-day existence is a liar, and there’s a freedom loving, free-loving, swinging dude out there who is totally ready to break down their cheap façade. These movies are cheaply didactic, as they also contain within them the inelegant and idiotically circular defense that “if you don’t like it, you’re one of the squares.” Then, of course, there’s the other side of the coin, the films that show The Cad as being the ruiner of all things, the great destroyer, the beast. Follow down his path of sexy outfits and indulgence in alcohol and doobies and you’ll end up selling your body for Big Macs in some Abel Ferrara-inspired hellscape.
The problem with exploring the life of the cad, the lothario, the brigand, is that it is hard not to break it down into an “us versus them” story of one ilk or another. Rarely ever do we get to see a movie that simply presents the cad to us and shows him to us for what he is, which is one of the reasons why La Dolce Vita is such a brilliant film. Make no mistake, Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is a cad. He chases women, he won’t settle down with his ever-suffering girlfriend, he lives the fast life of a tabloid journalist and enjoys his alcohol. However, the film refuses to truly judge him. This isn’t the kind of non-judgment that is equivocal to minor undertones of either condoning or condescension. This is a non-judgment that simply allows this man to be who he is, for better and for worse. You can love him or you can hate him, and the movie understands both positions. He’s certainly charming. Marcello Mastroianni is brilliant, Cary Grant with an edge of sadness and existential angst. The movie shows the man at his worst, arguing with his girlfriend and kicking her out of the car or drunkenly abusing guests at a celebration. It also shows him at his best, his tender affections towards the wounded bird played by Anouk Aimee and his deep, resounding love for his friend Steiner. Fellini does not ask you to choose one Marcello over the other; they are both presented as two contradictory parts of a whole.
Speaking of parts of the whole, it’s astounding that the film works as one entire story. The film is structurally episodic, but doesn’t feel that way. It’s a testament to Fellini that the movie feels like an organic whole. The secret, I believe, is also the secret to why the Marcello character doesn’t descend into either satire or moralistic fable- the story isn’t so much about Marcello the man as Marcello the moment. The character is a man completely of his place and time, and he's engaging with every piece of it. It’s important that the film is called La Dolce Vita, The Sweet Life, and not, say, The Tabloid Reporter or Marcello. This is a film about The Life. This is also why it’s important to note that Marcello is a tabloid journalist. He’s not out to get facts or create any meaningful exposes, he’s out to capture the glitz and glamour, the beautiful sheen of the carefree life of the rich. The tabloids feed that dream of the rich, while the film ironically brings out its actuality.
The scenes themselves are astounding, each one crafted beautifully to build towards dramatic, revelatory conclusions. Each scene shows us a small, new corner of Marcello’s elaborate and complex personality. My favorite, perhaps, is the whole section of the film revolving around a surprise visit from Marcello’s father. The movie once again sidesteps dull, easy drama by avoiding a rote my-father-was-never-there-for-me scenario. The interplay between Marcello and his father is one of two men who may not know each other on a strong personal level, but they certainly understand each other on a level as basic as blood. Each scenario is also brought out by its stunning location. There’s the wild nightclubs of Marcello’s father’s visit, the wild outlands where the children are claiming to see the Virgin Mary, the ornate fountain where the stunning Anita Ekberg is wooed to distraction by the vivacity of life, the stark modern apartment of Steiner, the old, decadent house in which Marcello confesses his feelings for Anouk Aimee, they all tell the story just as much as any of the words or performances do.
It’s not just the landscapes that are gorgeous. Fellini fills the movie with some of the most stunning actresses ever assembled. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever neglect a woman as pretty Yvonne Furneaux, but then you get a glimpse of the sensual Audrey-Hepburn-cum-Sophia-Loren Anouk Aimee and the complete bombshell that is Anita Ekberg and you begin to wonder how anyone could keep their head around so many pretty women. That’s not even getting into all the bit players, like Marcello’s dancer ex and Nico! Nico, as herself! Looking darn good back in the day.
But a whole lot of good all those good looking ladies are going to do our protagonist. One of the film’s main themes is a breakdown of communication. The film opens and closes with Marcello being unable to hear someone, specifically adorable young women, over the din of a roaring helicopter at the beginning (boy, how about those great helicopter shots!) and the breaking of waves at the end. In perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the movie Marcello confesses his feelings for Anouk Aimee within an echo chamber, only to have Amiee, who is out of sight, take up with a stranger. However, in keeping with the movie, Marcello doesn’t view it all as a total loss. In the final moments of the film Marcello sits on a beach, all the former partiers marveling at a strange beast brought up on the shore by local fishermen. Across a little inlet from Marcello is a young girl who worked at a restaurant Marcello sat at while he tried to write his abandoned novel. The girl, looking more than a little angelic, tries calling out to Marcello, but he cannot hear her. She pantomimes typing, calling out to him to remember what he once tried to be, but Marcello can’t parse it and ends up giving her a wry smile and a shrug. The girl smiles back, and Marcello goes to rejoin his party. The ending is valuable for what it is not. It is not a harrowing morality play, it is not a joyful exaltation. It is life, and in its own way, if not wholly sweet, then perhaps bitterly so.
As always, please respond. I just sort of brain-vomit this stuff out, so I'd love to hear what other people think!