In Abel Gance's "Napoleon" there's a scene which depicts the events of July 27, 1794 in the French Revolutionary Assembly. Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon are in deep doo-doo and they know it. Jean-Lambert Tallien (played by Jean Gaudrey, making the most of the role) rises and, indicating Robespierre, declares: "I have armed myself with a dagger to pierce the breast of this new Cromwell if the Convention should support him!" This is followed by Saint-Just eloquently reminding the members of the Assembly just how important he and Robespierre are to the Revolution.
One of the women in the Assembly audience simpers and remarks: "They are too great for us."
(You can almost hear Robespierre thinking: "Suckers!")
Actually, though, there are moments when I can sympathize with the woman in the Assembly. One such moments surfaces when I consider Frederico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita". The film only takes 174 minutes to watch, but critiquing it can require years of study.
And the problem with the film, pumpkins, is that so many of the people who've watched it get the whole thing wrong. Fellini's intention (or at least as I see it) was to illustrate the overall sense of excitement and hedonistic nervousness which he perceived as being prevalent among the social hierarchy . . . the "Jet Set" as it were. But most people saw "La Dolce Vita" and became fixated on Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain, or the orgy scene at the villa. That's what really caught their interest. The form succeeded over the substance (as it would, thirty-two years later, with "Basic Instinct", and Sharon Stone's thighs). Fellini was trying to describe a modern tribal attitude. Instead he predicted "Jersey Shore", or "Mall Trash Slut Wives of Boise".
I have to say on the outset (which, technically, should've been several paragraphs earlier) that "La Dolce Vita" isn't a film I particularly choose to watch. The same thing which attracted so much attention . . . the excesses of the glitterati . . . generally leaves me cold and, as such, I usually avoid such stories. But I cannot call myself a student of film and choose to ignore Fellini's work and, despite my overall disdain towards the subject matter, I tend to point to this as the director's premier work.
Even trying to summarize the plot of the film can be compared to taking a Rorschach test. We are following a week in the life of a journalist named Marcello (and played by Marcella Mastroianni) as he moves through Rome. A Euro-"Playboy" type, Marcello is adrift in the world that he is usually obliged to report on. That world is forcibly deprived of the rules and mores that once dictated behavior (symbolized early on by a scene showing a statue of Christ being airlifted to a new location. passing over the crumbling remains of the classic Rome). A new and equally firm set of rules has yet to be established for the world which is in place. As the title indicates, "The Good Life" is all that matters (the news crew following the transported statue are distracted from their outwardly pious assignment by some sunbathing girls).
(Hmmm . . . scratch a film critic and find a prude. Who'd have thought?)
In a series of overlapping episodes Fellini illustrates Marcello's journey (sort of a "Pilgrim's Progress" rewritten for the pages of "GQ"). Although ostensibly working on a novel, Marcello seems to develop a habit of ending up in places where one would think writing would be difficult (if not impossible). Nightclubs . . . parties . . . gatherings of paparazzi . . . pleasure is being maintained with the frenetic effort of keeping a steam locomotive on its track. Even an occasion for taking part in a gathering of thinkers offers little than a paper-thin wrapping of thought. The effort of thinking is not as important as the appearance of thinking. Look at me! I'm Doing Something.
(Along with celebrity-oriented reality television, Fellini seems to have anticipated the eventual appearance of the blogger.)
(Goodness this movie gets me in a mood.)
"La Dolce Vita" makes a better film than it would a book. In Fellini's unblinking eye the superficiality of the world Marcello wanders through is achingly simple. Or at least conveniently portable (and, through that, wonderfully modern). Spirituality (or at least its symbols) is whisked away by helicopter from one location to another. A sighting of the Virgin Mary generates more interest as a media event than an occasion for epiphanies (and those who simply believe are trampled . . . some literally). God is supplanted by Glamor, and the struggle for it overcomes all other considerations. At a press conference a group of journalists (although I'm loathe to use the term in this context) ask vapid questions of a self-absorbed Swedish-American actress (played by Anita Ekberg). Her response to a question of what's important in life is "love, love and, above all, love", but one is left with the suspicion that, for her, Love would be difficult without a hand mirror. Tit for tat, though . . . her answers are as honestly relative as the question. In depth news is an alien concept. Once again we're taught that the only real value in this world is Form, and the focus upon it must overcome all other considerations. All movies tend to make voyeurs out of us, but "La Dolce Vita" raises it to a high science. Fellini knows his characters have no true substance; they're just fashion plates on the loose. We can feel no real sympathy for anyone in the movie. There's no sense of identification . All we can do with "La Dolce Vita" is watch. Voyeurism becomes the one true approach here (the only alternative being envy for the outwardly apparent appeal of nonstop parties among the Rich and Famous, and God help those of us on that slippery slope). The "beautiful people" who make up the majority of the characters are constantly on the move not out of a sense of possessing a cosmopolitan frame of mind, but because Motion is the only way to survive. A superficial experience will only last so long, and a new experience must immediately be sought in order to keep from facing the fact that the life these people have chosen is little more than packaging. Near the end of the film, when a group of partyers come across the corpse of a monstrous fish on the beach, the whole event draws the eye for a few moments . . . a source of mild curiosity . . . then it's time to move on. It's the same with the people in the film. No Scarlett O'Haras or Rick Blaines or Annie Halls here. The people draw the eye, we become mildly curious and then, at the end of the film, we move on. Space Ghost would command more empathy than most of the people in "La Dolce Vita".
(Not only prudish, but judgmental as well. I should stick to writing about Godzilla movies or something.)
Fellini doesn't compromise with his point of view; to him the filmmaker's effort is the only honest element in the entire story. "La Dolce Vita" is the beautifully fashioned take on a roadside accident. We pass by, we glance or stare at it and move on with little effect to our personal way of thinking. In a society where a movie dealing with blue-skinned CGI aliens can be taken to heart by so many, Fellini's achievement at demonstrating the emptiness of a much more realistically perceived example of a "good life" must be viewed as sheer genius. Mastroianni's character spends the length of the film searching for a foundation to cling to, but fails miserably. The lack of spiritual oxygen in the world of the "good life" turns lovers into parasites, and eventually drives the few people seemingly worthy of admiration to commit atrocities (cries for help? Or attention?). Atrocity . . . a shock or slap to the face (or an orgy) . . . is the only way to break through the thin shell and gain attention. Otherwise everyone in the film possess no more significance than a dead fish.
In "La Dolce Vita" there is no Love. There is only the view. But desolation has never been so brilliantly depicted. Fellini is too great for me.
I can't say I Enjoyed the Movie. It bothered me. But it's not something I can turn away from.
Rather like an automobile wreck.