True Film Greatness: La Dolce Vita

“Movies have now gone past the phase of prose narrative and are coming nearer and nearer to poetry.”–Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini’s film was released in 1959 and instantly became a bona-fide classic. I finally cracked my DVD box set to partake of a film which once generated massive controversy just as the post-war Italian economy was taking off. The opening scene is one of the most famous in cinematic history. A statue of Jesus being flown over the Eternal City by helicopter as another helicopter containing paparazzi try to get the phone numbers of swimming pool girls.

There are many memorable fine scenes. The paparazzi swarming Sylvia at the airport and later Steiner’s wife after the family tragedy. The Trevi fountain episode with the sexpot actress Sylvia jumping in it. The crazy religious frenzy scene in a rainstorm as two children who have faked a Madonna sighting run about creating crowd chaos. The party and suicide-murder scenes at the house of Marcello’s friend’s Steiner. The scenes with Marcello’sĀ genial father. The pointless bizarre decadent parties in which the well-to-dos reveal their moral corruption and spiritual vacancies. The final scene on the beach with an unknown monster fish–itself a symbolic malignancy of the partygoers–and the failure of a now-dissolute Marcello to connect with the beautiful young woman of the outdoor cafe.

In short, many good scenes, and strong performances throughout–Mastroianni was never more confused, sympathetic, likable, and pitiable at once in any of his best performances. Marcello’s (same name for actor and character) father’s performance was scene-stealing and very truthful in getting at the emotional distances between fathers and sons. The actor who played Steiner was also wonderful in creating a deep, soul-searching charismatic friend. Likewise, the performances of the actresses playing Emma–Marcello’s depressed girlfriend, and Maddelena–the wealthy daughter who lives for sexual pleasure.

There are many truths and much resonance in this film, especially for people today unhappy with their own lives and contemporary Western values. The craziness of crowds, religion, celebrity, the paparazzi, the pursuits of frivolousness and decadence, the agendas, the destructiveness and self-destructiveness, the boredom and depression, and the empty interiors of so many Western men and women–all remain sadly relevant.

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