It's the most famous work of one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. It's "one of the great achievements in world cinema" (quote). It won a ton of awards, including the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Oscar, and for the latter it had also been nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay. I found it nearly unwatchable and was struggling not to fall asleep. It's also nearly three hours long.
The problem is that it's anti-story, like Last Year in Marienbad
. Marcello Mastroianni is the main character, a journalist in Rome whom we follow for a week, but he doesn't do anything. Instead he's a passive object, drifting from one cinematic set-piece to another. He romances whatever woman he's talking to at the time. He goes to parties. He sees glamorous people. He occasionally does his job. However none of it matters or is going anywhere, although in fairness this is Fellini's point.
For what it's worth, I found this sufficiently horrendous to start theorising about European art films of this period. This came out in 1960 and Last Year in Marienbad
in 1961. This is of course the tail end of the 1950s, which is a cinematic dark age if you're judging by its big bug movies and alien invasion flicks. Yes, that's a leap, but bear with me. You see, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
and its ilk aren't merely bad. Instead they're so fundamentally misconceived as drama as to demonstrate that there was as yet no widespread understanding of storytelling. Robert McKee was still in his teens. Furthermore this wasn't just in Hollywood, c.f. Japanese films like Battle in Outer Space
and Warning from Space
Obviously writers have been capable of writing brilliantly since the beginning of time, but I see this as important context for the kind of European art fare we're talking about here. These things are pointless bollocks with no story, but they're also beautiful works of art and have since been massively influential in France, to give just the obvious example.
Last Year in Marienbad
kept me watching, though. It's all elegant surface, but I liked that surface. La Dolce Vita on the other hand is repellent.
It's about celebrity, glamour and beautiful people. Fellini's Rome is ravishingly photographed, sexy and exotic. They switch at will between different languages, for which Fellini appears to have a checklist. American English, British English, French, German and of course Italian. The women are a million times sexier than they would have been if they'd simply got their tits out, with Anita Ekberg in the fountain being one of cinema's iconic images. The characters go to exclusive nightclubs, own castles and get chased by paparazzi (a word invented by this film). They include movie stars and famous intellectuals.
All this is as alluring as Fellini can possibly make it. However it's also demonstrating the emptiness of these beautiful, rich livestyles. What does fame and glamour really mean? The Catholic church is shown in a cynical light that makes it look ineffectual amid all this materialism. (The Vatican's newspaper condemned the film, Franco's Spain banned it and Fellini was condemned as a "public sinner". Naturally it broke all box office records.) I've even seen the film described as a warning that Italy was still spiritually close to fascism, which at first seemed ridiculous but is actually a more defensible reading than you'd think. The movie's last hour (which is quite good) has a murder-and-suicide triple fatality being treated as just another opportunity to photograph women and no thought being given to the unimaginable horror of the one survivor. She disappears from the film and instead we find ourselves at a party so hedonistic and debased that's it's unpleasant to watch.
It's also Italian to its bones. It wouldn't work at all in an American setting, for instance, or even arguably in a Spanish or French one. It's portraying a specific kind of decadent (but Catholic) privilege and glamour, while the flavour of its male-female relationships is Mediterranean.
Its paparazzi are interesting, though. They're a symbol of the movie, forever chasing the rich and famous in order to photograph them. They don't care about news, reality or the truth, mind you. They just want a sexy shot to sell to their editor. They're lying with their lenses every minute of the day and they're a metaphor for the entire movie in their shamelessness in doing so.
There's a section where the film gets good. It's during that final hour I mentioned. The marriage proposal woke me up, after which the film gets meaty and grabbed my attention before eventually losing it again with the "oh, piss off" decadent party. The aristocrats dressed as vampires in a castle at night look cool and provide yet another metaphor. The "you don't know what love is" scene in Mastroianni's car is the thematic counterpart of the marriage proposal and it's absolutely blistering, even if it did have me going "YOU TWAT". Interestingly this is the only point in the movie in which Mastroianni is engaged with his emotions. He's being risible and infantile, but he's reacting to what he sees as a threat. Then after that we get death, which again is connecting with something real even if the trickle of blood we see is hilariously delicate.
I was astonished by my reaction to this film. Normally, on watching one of the great movies, you can at least tell it's a great movie. This left me going "eh?" I'd clearly missed something, but I couldn't even see what it was. I was struggling to think of anything in it worth watching. I think it's two hours of pointlessness, half an hour of stuff that's actually good and then another half-hour in which the pointlessness returns with its drunken fuck-buddies "obnoxiousness" and "someone please kill these people".
Admittedly for a long time I didn't realise that the film was fighting so aggressively to prevent me from caring about anything that was happening. I thought it was merely sending me to sleep. It's also unfair of me to call it pointless, because Fellini is saying stinging and massively controversial things about his society and indeed about human nature. The pointlessness I referred to is on a storytelling level, since nothing that's said or done by the protagonist (or indeed anyone else) matters. In fact, their very existence doesn't matter. This is Fellini's point, thus refuting my charge of pointlessness unless I make my claim more narrow, as above.
I think it's a Rorschach movie. Everything will depend on your reaction to Mastroianni and his glamorous world of sin. My father found it powerful and compelling, but then again he's a clinical psychologist and so has spent his working life studying and trying to understand and help troubled people. Some of them will have resembled these losers. (Note: not the technical term.) Will you find Fellini's Rome seductive and everything you aspire to? Will you identify with it? Will you see it as a moral lesson? Will you pity Mastroianni and his fellow victims? Alternatively, will you simply be mesmerised by Anita Ekberg's breasts? There's clearly a powerful message being shouted through this film and, after thought and discussion, I'm now prepared to concede that the results aren't worthless. It took me a long time to reach this position, though.