Go with a smile!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

La Dolce Vita

Finally watching “La Dolce Vita”. Considering that it’s Fellini’s most well known work, it’s funny that it’s the 6th Fellini film that I’ve watched. This is one of his flat-out masterpieces, together with “La Strada”, “8½” and “Nights of Cabiria”.

This movie is one of the most densely packed (in terms of images) that I have seen. There are around 7 short stories in here, and in every one of them, there are memorable characters.

Basically, the main character has Hobson’s choice. Either he leads a staid and saintly life (but inevitably he will feel hemmed in) or he becomes like a wandering gypsy, inevitably flitting towards hedonism just as a moth inevitably flits towards the candle. Neither are appealing.

The narrative is very loose. What holds it together is that you can see that this is a person’s futile spiritual quest to find a higher spiritual meaning in his existence. Materially, he is comfortable. He is doing OK as a journalist who maintains good contacts with various famous people and the church, he’s earning a good living and drives a nice but modest sports car. His fiancé loves him (a bit too much).

There are a series of parties, but to me they are mainly windows into various aspects of the life of Rome, as well as the life of Marcello Rubini. Somebody theorized that there are 7 episodes in this film which correspond to the 7 deadly sins. I don’t know, but it does seem like there are 7 episodes. They are (I’m trying to name them so that I don’t give away too much of the plot) “Prostitute’s apartment”, “Actress”, “Visions of the Virgin”, “Father”, “Artistic Guy”, “Castle”, and “Orgy”.

The Anita Ekberg scenes were basically guys falling over each other to be with her. When she was howling back at the dogs, the word “bitch” came to mind. I think she represented the promise of something to Rubini. All the same, she was a symbol of the movie. Her unabashed hedonism, voluptuousness, undefagtible energy is symptomatic of the “hedonist” option.

At the other end of the spectrum, there was the fiancé, who was literally smothering Rubini with her love, feeding him food he didn’t want. Most guys desire a hot chick who loves her that much, but he’s not that into her.

I think you can think about most of the characters in terms of where they stand in this dichotomy - "straight and narrow" versus "La Dolce Vita". There’s the father who was never at home because he was a freewheeling traveling salesman, and later the inspiration behind one of the most famous problems in computer science. He wants a wild night at the nightclub in spite of his advanced age, and is later on taken ill. Rubini wants to spend more time with him, but in spite of the father having said that staying at home was hellish, said that he wanted to catch the next train home. Well the father is clearly on the "La Dolce Vita" side

There was this guy who was interested in Rubini’s more intellectual side. He invited Rubini to a party which closely resembles gatherings of intellectuals that you would see on an elite US campus. (see Woody Allen films if you don’t believe me). I was a little too sleepy to fully catch the dialogue that was thrown around. But intellectual guy was somewhat dissatisfied with his existence, in spite of his apparent contented existence as a well liked and respected – well – intellectual. He’s one the “straight and narrow” side.

There was this random encounter at a coffeeshop. He struck up a conversation with a teenage waitress (probably not legal yet) who came from the provinces, and who looked like an angel on the Church fresco. She probably reminded him that he too was from the provinces. Also, he was trying to write a story at that time, while screaming down the phone to his fiancé that she doesn’t own him. She (the waitress) is with the “straight and narrow” gang.

Later on, we see all the mooring ropes that hold Rubini down to the straight and narrow all come loose. His difficult relationship with his fiancé meant that there wasn’t much of a future. He never had that important conversation with his father, who pushed him away the same way he pushed his fiancé away. The intellectual – well that was one of the most shocking sequences of the film, although for me it was the most implausible. Now considering that plenty of weird stuff goes on in a Fellini film, I really mean that it’s implausible. In the end, all these incidents sowed the seeds of doubt about the straight and narrow path. When he was offered more money to become a paparazzi, he accepted.

It’s very concerting that the angel / waitress and the striptease were dancing to the same piece of music. I think it all serves to highlight their direct contrast to each other. In the end, he turns away from the angel / waitress and goes back to the striptease scene.

And there were 2 images of Christ which bookended the movie. (The fish is a symbol of Christ, but I’m not sure how.) I already knew about the helicopter scene because almost every description I’ve read of this movie already mentioned this. For me it was a clear sign – this film is about a spiritual quest, or at least a spiritual journey. A quest for meaning. Every one of the main episodes is best understood in the context of the question, what is the meaning of life? The film is sarcastically called "La Dolce Vita" - the sweet life. No translation necessary. We don't come up with an English translation. One level, it refers to the naked hedonism. Another level, it is the veiled question, "what is life". Monty Python had their meaning of life, this is Fellini's.

Was it about chasing women, especially extremely rich women? (as implied by episode 1). No. Was it about glamour and sex (as implied by the actress episode)? No. Was it about God? (The episode of the visions of the Virgin)? No. Was it about intellectual pursuits (The intellectual guy's apartment)? No. Was it about his family? (Meeting his father) No. Was it about the eccentric aristocracy? No. Was he going to find the meaning of life in a happy relationship with his beloved? No, she was going to smother him to death. Eventually, he said, "fuck it all" and became the embittered cynic who showers everybody in the orgy with sardonic comments. Irony of irony, nobody in there seems to mind because that is the perfect occasion for him to do so. The basic structure of this reminds me of Dostoevsky's novel "The Devils" which I studied in college, it also had a main character aiming for the meaning of life in various (and often contradictory) contexts and people, and having failed to find it, takes his own life.

Somebody mentioned that Marcello Rubini is an inert character for whom things happen instead of an active person who makes things happen. In a way that is true. If he were a master of his own fate, there would not be a story at all. Secondly he is a reporter and it is through him that we see things happen. In effect he is the reporter for the audience. In a way he plays the same role as Monica Vitti does in "L'avventura", "La Notte" and "L'eclisse". And lastly, I think that in many of Fellini's films the main character is not allowed to overshadow the scenery of freaks and weirdos conjured up by the maestros.

What was highlighted in one of the reviews is the prominence of stairs in this movie. Stairs is to this movie what corridors are to “L’avventura”. I don’t know. Is he always going up or down? This movie came out the same year as “L’avventura”, and both were controversial movies that later on became acknowledged cinema masterpieces.

This is a long movie. I’ve talked mainly about the main aspect of this movie. But to reduce the movie into these terms is to underestimate the fantastic density of ideas and images in this great work. Plus the movie is naturalistic enough that many details don’t have to do with the grand narrative.

This movie reminds me of Antonioni’s “Eclisse”, in that it concerns with the search for spiritual meaning in a time on increasing affluence but spiritual emptiness. Modernity is alienating to the spirit. Cliché I know but the movies say it better. It is very difficult for me to figure out whether this movie is a celebration or a denunciation of the garish and flashy portrait of modern living. I suspect Fellini himself didn’t want to commit either way. And it’s very curious that even as he denounces the modern life for the spiritual emptiness, he embraces the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink attention deficient hyperactive style that is so modernist.

This movie was long enough but I knew it hadn’t ended because Nico hadn’t appeared yet. I was thinking, wow, this is the same Nico who sang on Velvet Underground’s first album. Who later became a heroin addict and died in the 80s. Well the distinctive husky voice is already there, but a bit funny to hear her speak Italian. It’s not surprising that she plays a dreamy kooky character but I loved how she was wearing a knight’s helmet, as though to underline the point that she was going to marry into an aristocratic family and become one of the clan.

I think that in naming this film

I categorized those Fellini films I’ve watched so far into the Masina and Fellini films. The Masina films are those which feature naïve saints persevering against all odds. They are “La Strada”, “Juliet of the Spirits” and “Nights of Cabiria”. The Fellini films are the “I’m a cad but I’m feeling guilty about it”. They are “Il Vitelloni”, “8½” and “La Dolce Vita”.

I overheard a conversation behind me where some other guys told me that there also was a similar Antonioni festival. I checked it out and lo and behold, there was one 2 years ago that I completely missed. What a bummer.

My favourite Fellini film, in case you’re wondering, is still “The Nights of Cabiria”, which I watched 10 years ago.



Blogger Nat said...

I have been doing some thinking, I am convinced that Steiner (the intellectual) is closet Gay and though he is in a strata of the society that accepts homosexuality, he seems forced to accept the heterosexual facade. The conversation between Him and Marcello is pretty sexually loaded I thought. That also explains why he had to take his anger on his children and not on his wife.

In this context, Steiner is strained (coincidence in naming?) living the "la Dolce Vita" when he would rather be "straight and narrow". I guess the point is to take a side. If you are going to walk the tight rope, you are going to end up fucking yourself up.

I suppose that is also a trigger for Marcello to pick a side. He was trying hard to reconcile the two sides of his life for the most part and finally chose debauchery as he cannot take the soppy and slow love life. So much so that he had to brush away the last chance he had at redemption with the nymph.

Incidentally I realized that "Jesus Fish" is a strong religious symbol

10:47 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

Yeh I highly suspected that Steiner was gay. I don't know why that meant that he had to kill himself. Alan Turing killed himself because the authorities were breathing down his neck (in a non-erotic way). This guy - it wasn't that clear.

One suspects that Fellini - as usual - is just inventing excuses for his own behaviour.

3:02 PM

Blogger Nat said...

He did not kill himself because he was gay. But because he cannot take living 2 variants of lives. I guess the strain is too much to take.

As you noted, It is possible that Fellini is saying that "Look, if you want me to have a hidden life and a different public persona, things would get ugly. Just let me carry on my affairs in public. Oh and I will let my wife know too, so I will shoot 8 1/2 and Juliet, just to be clear.".

Being Gay was not the issue for Stainer, but trying to balance 2 persona's was. Which for me seems to resolve the ending nicely with Marcello deciding not to be lured into walking the middle path. The options were clear, he decides to live, whether the life is sweet or not.

5:04 PM


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