Tuesday, September 23, 2008

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)

Some films linger at the edge of one’s con sciousness, important somehow even if we haven’t actually gotten around to seeing them. La Dolce Vita’s spectral reputation in the 60s was as a shocking, sexy, glamorous film; in fact it is not very sexy at all. Rather, it is a very beautiful, very sad film about witnessing glamour, a prescient look at the cult of celebrity, and an acute insight into the sense of wanting something just out of reach. Marcello Mastroianni, who is of course very handsome and is looking out at the world as we look at him, seems to be still even when he’s moving. What we see in him is the ache of watching, and this creates an oddly affecting loop. We don’t want to be him, even as he’s engaged in not wanting to be him as well.

The film starts with a to
ur-de-force set of shots, two helicopters passing over a new housing development, one hauling a statue of Christ dangling on a long cable, its arms outstretched as if by pure coincidence circumstances accidentally came together and an arbitrary symbol passes through the world. People below run after the phenomenal sight, and its shadow whisks up the side of a building, at the top of which is a roof garden where several pretty young women are sunbathing, and one of the helicopters circles around so Marcello and his friend Paparazzo can flirt with them. The movie swarms with journalists occupying a spookily unreal zone of more or less staged occasions. Perhaps the most impressive is the great scene of televised religious frenzy, in which two children fake seeing the Virgin. Or they may or may not be faking. Surrounding them are huge crowds of would-be believers and hordes of television crews and paparazzi, and scenes are directed for television, and when the rain and the children’s proclamation set the crowd in motion, for a just a moment real need, sorrow, and faith can be seen in the midst of the big con.

Marcello seems always to be really near contact with things, and what is more, he appears to be really there, which makes him a great social reporter, but he senses he should be something more, a serious writer perhaps, as his brilliant-seeming bohemian friend suggests. But he isn’t even close to real feeling about his suicidal girlfriend. He is momentarily enchanted by the visiting American actress, the voluptuous Anita Ekberg, who is spontaneous and lustily primal but somehow not wicked, and he is attracted to the self-destructive Maddalena (Anouk Aimeé) who, in a poignant hall-of-whispers scene, begs him at a distance to marry her, then declares that she wants to love him and she wants to stay the same, a whore, and as she says this a man begins to make love to her and Marcello cannot find her in the maze of the old castle. The friend he so admired cracks and kills his children and himself—Marcello speculates he was afraid. Of somebody threatening him, a detective asks? No, of himself. He was right to be afraid; the event bears out the fear.

There is a scene with a distanced father, and a break-up scene, and a long decadent party, slightly silly and slightly brutal, and the last scene on the beach where the partygoers see a huge monster fish dragged in. A beautiful young girl, the innocent one, waves at Marcello. He’d met her at a café where he was trying to write and she was working. She beckons and calls, he says he can’t hear her, she signals again, he is called by the other partygoers, he shrugs eloquently and waves goodbye to her, as does she, still smiling. A farewell to beginnings.

There are lots of other things in the movie, too much to detail here. Afterwards, I was filled with a great sadness; the movie so eloquently expresses proximity without closeness, anomie, and despair, covered over with glamour and a hectic pace.

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