After watching the possibly-pseud, Babel, a couple of nights ago, seeing La Dolce Vita again after more than fifty years brought on similar misgivings. Is it really a classic? Does it say anything at all, apart from condemning paparazzi? Is there actually any acting in it, or were ninety percent of the cast merely playing themselves?
When I first watched it, in the enormous St James theatre here in Dunedin, the place was packed. A typical Saturday night out for most of the people in the audience. By the time the movie finished, the place was half empty. Fellini had managed to alienate most of his audience.
Nearly fifty years on, the film is highly regarded by anyone who writes about it, and Fellini’s name has entered the film history books as being one of the great film directors. There’s no doubt he was that. Quite apart from La Dolce Vita, he made increasingly detailed and visually-stunning movies that kept on hammering away at certain themes, particularly the loss of self in an existential society.
The films also became increasingly long: La Dolce Vita itself finally reaches its last scenes after some 160 minutes, and the rather overblown Satyricon, while only 128 minutes, seems endless.
So what are the plusses?
LDV boasts superb cinematography, with wonderful use of the wide screen, and a black and white view of the world that is a feast for the eye.
In spite of my remarks above about the acting, there are any number of fine performances in the film: Marcello Mastroianni holds it all together, while playing a character who’s losing his soul; Anouk Aimee is Maddalena, promiscuous to the core because she doesn’t know how else to live her life; Yvonne Furneaux is Emma, Marcello’s long-suffering girlfriend, who first appears just after having tried to kill herself because Marcello continually neglects her in favour of more seductive and powerful women; Alain Cuny is the world-weary philosopher who proves to have no inner life after all; Anita Ekberg plays herself pretty much, but does it wonderfully. There are hundreds of others, some of them given moments of high comedy, some given moments of drama, some playing people full of tosh, some playing people spouting arty nonsense, some playing dilettantes, some playing people whose lives consist of nothing but endless, tedious parties, where happiness is almost completely absent. And there’s the not-to-be-forgotten Annibale Ninchi, who plays Marcello’s father, seeming at first to be more virtuous than his son, but proving to be just as empty.
There is the directing. The details are endless: so many things thrown into the mix that it’s impossible to pick up all the clues as to what’s happening. The extraordinary moments: the famous Trevi fountain scene (or Ekberg’s calling to the wolves just before this); the procession of aristocrats first looking for a ghost and then walking in the dawn (‘I’ve never seen the dawn before’) like a procession of ghosts themselves; the trumpet-playing clown, Polidor, who calls a host of balloons to follow him, after playing a typically Felliniesque piece of melancholy (compare the trumpet playing in La Strada, for instance). And on and on. But beyond this is the putting together of a dozen or so sequences which are each as extraordinary as the other.
The script. Such an open-ended script as this can barely exist. Fellini prompts us to think in certain directions, but continually throws us off-course. He lets us empathise with Marcello one moment, and then loathe him the next. We are dropped into emotional relationships but given only the minimum of clues. We are handed hundreds of sharply-drawn characters, and left to wonder at who these people really are. (Only a handful of characters appear in more than one sequence.) And always, always, we’re asking ourselves: Why? Why does Marcello commit himself to this lifestyle? Why do so many of the people hate life? Why do the paparazzi invade people’s privacy with such disdain? Why do at least two of the main characters wear sunglasses at night? What is the anger underneath Marcello’s handsome exterior? How does he manage to include himself in so many different circles?
The cons. The film is too long. The final party scene, in which Marcello has apparently reached his nadir, adds little to the film, and merely makes us loathe him all the more. The sequence before this, with the aristocrats, comes at a point when the audience has been saturated with people. And though it includes an important scene, it seems to me to wander off course towards the end.
Still, if those were the only quibbles, the film would still remain an extraordinary achievement. As a work of art it has so many layers most viewers would never get to the bottom of them. As a work of filmmaking, it is superior still, even fifty years after it was made, to many other films that attempt something similar. And curiously, in spite of its age, it doesn’t appear dated. Apart from the odd piece of women’s fashion, and the styles of the cars, little has changed.