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Review: La Dolce Vita (1960)

La Dolce Vita

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Director
Federico Fellini
Screenplay
Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi
Length
174 min.
Starring
Marcello Mastroianni, Anita EKberg, Anouk Aimée, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noel, Alain Cuny, Walter Santesso
MPAA Rating
Unrated

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Review
Coming out of his Neorealist period, director Federico Fellini began shifting into the realm of art. La Dolce Vita, while heavily influenced by Italian Neorealism, is also an undeniably potent art film. The story takes place over seven days across which its protagonist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) moves from event to event barely realizing the flaws in his life that threaten to tear him down. One of the questions the film leaves up to the audience is whether Rubini is trying to find himself or escape himself.

From the opening scene, the audience is left to interpret each scene on their own. Fellini doesn't come right out and tell the viewer what they should be thinking. And while it's difficult not to try and react as others would, hoping to find a way to relate to this film like many others they have seen and share a common perception. But art is entirely subjective. One person can find a single image that symbolizes the whole while others find the whole symbolic of something larger. Each interpretation is no less valid than another, which is how I feel about this film. I've read a couple of other thoughts on the film, but none of them really leaped out at me as a definitive examination of the film. For me, La Dolce Vita begins by lashing out at the church and then examines human faults through the prism of the ten commandments.

Rubini is a reporter, tracking celebrities in hopes of writing that one important story that will bring him more success and fame. He pursues those important personages who readers want to know more about and whose lives are lived in public and seldomly in private. And, it's in this character's actions that you begin to suspect that he, and vicariously Fellini, have become disillusioned with the church. The film opens as a statue of Christ is being flown across the Italian country side towards St. Peter's Basilica. The helicopter porting the statue is being pursued by another containing Rubini and his photographer Paparazzo (the term was coined by Fellini comparing aggressive photographers to tiny, annoying mosquitos). They are following Christ like he were one of Rubini's many celebrity targets. He is a larger-than-life person whose presence elicits waves and salutes of respect as he's being flown through the city. On top of this, in a later scene where two children have claimed to have seen the Madonna who has tasked them with ordering a church be built, we are given the impression that even if these children are lying about their vision, it brings out spectators including a number of invalids by the droves, each in hopes of seeing the Madonna and earning her favor. Religion is treated as a type of celebrity fixation.

But religion isn't Fellini's only target. While not directly speaking in favor of each of the commandments, he shows in great detail how reckless these ideas can be if not obeyed. The opening statue of Christ is an embodiment of the first commandment. The statute may be a representation of the core of the Catholic faith, but it is an idol that is worshipped much like the celebrities that the public lays down their attention and money in front of. Holding up an image or an idea speaks against the first commandment. The film doesn't display the violation of every commandment. One set of scenes where Rubini entertains his visiting father and goes out of his way to care for him when he becomes ill and assure his safe return shows that Fellini isn't trying to break each one. There is theft, adultery, lies, murder and desire. It's a film about a lack of virtue in society. Yet, the film is about Rubini and his attempts to justify his action and discover who and what he should be.

For Rubini, his sweet life (the literal interpretation of the film's title) is to live freely and without confines. Despite being married, he sleeps around on his wife and attends one frivolous party after another. He cheats, lies and steals in an effort to find out not only who he is, but who he wants to be. Is he satisfied with his life or merely enthralled by it. Can he be happy moving from one woman to the next, one celebrity to the next or one story to the next. Every action seems guided by his past, by a desire not to turn out like his father, a satisfied man whose experiences in life are confined to his wife and his job and little else. Rubini wants to explore, to understand and to experience, but does he do it because he enjoys it or because the idea of settling down frightens him. Both theories are valid and each play a large part in Rubini's decisions.

There are shades of surrealism in La Dolce Vita that would eventually be embellished and relished in Fellini's later works. One might even say that the creative tenacity of Dolce Vita and the public outrage at his truth, but claimed immoral depictions allowed Fellini to escape his own burdens to provide entertainment to his audiences and allow him to shift into the artistic mode that he seemed to be clamoring for. La Dolce Vita is at once a rebuke of all that had come before and a celebration of all that would be to come. It's a film that speaks of itself and its history without worrying about the consequences and, like his protagonist, Felllini explores himself and who he is as a director and begins to escape who he was in an effort to be who he should or wants to be.
Review Written
March 14, 2011

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