2 Hrs., 55 Mins.
hat makes one’s life “sweet”? Professional fulfillment? Romantic satisfaction? Long-lasting friendships? Attractiveness? Charm? Intellect? Passion? Tenacity? Courage? One can be certain that it's impossible to attain all these things in a lifetime, especially all at once. And one can also be certain that the idealizing of these characteristics is subjective and one-dimensional — both dependent on what one believes each thing looks like, and dependent on whether a person trying to parse together the meaning of a “sweet life” (or una dolce vita)
finds their unofficial list of unreachable ideals similarly comprising these characteristics, too, or if some of the items above are picked and chosen carefully or not included at all.
Our reasoning assures us that there is no definitive, eternal “sweet life”: it’s a fantasia that only exists in movies, television, and books. Yet we are nonetheless envious of those we believe “have it all,” or are at least living lives we think we’d like to temporarily live ourselves. Nevermind that insecurities exist within us all and thus no one knows what it’s like to be contented. And nevermind the fact that the phenomenon of wishing we exhibited the attributes of another is a never-ending one. And nevermind that New Yorker article by the writer Kimberly Harrington I recently read, “I Am the One Woman Who Has It All,” which was meant to reassure everyone that even the person we think has it all looks at someone else and thinks they have it all. Logic be damned: The existence of a perfect life must exist, right?
In 1960, the definitive cinematization of this cyclical, exhausting concept, was written and directed by the Italian, rotund auteur Federico Fellini. It was called La Dolce Vita; starred the actor Marcello Mastroianni, clothed and made up in such a way that emphasized his imperious attractiveness and formidable cool; was nominated for four Oscars; and has become a much-satirized, absolute odyssey in one’s futile search for meaning.
It is a pointedly structured, 175-minute epic particularly focused upon its protagonist’s quest for self-actualization. And it is markedly Fellinian — meaning ambitious, difficult, prone to stooping to various shades of absurdism. Yet feels like an outlier, a zenith, even, in his wide-ranging filmography.
But the way it affects us with each viewing differs. Much as we’d like to interpret Fellini’s supposed intentions — pretend it’s a rebus wherein everything has a double meaning meant to be unspooled — whatever symbolism or metaphorical content embedded eventually comes to look ancillary. Is that because the way we simplistically respond to it is more overwhelming? Or is that because the older we get, the more each “episode” featured shifts in its impact and shouldn’t be tied down anyway?
Akin to the way Alain Resnais spoke about his Last Year at Marienbad (1961), another feature which seemed more reliant on our reaction than on the putative intentions of the filmmaker, Fellini comparatively seemed turned off by the idea of declaring that his movies had any particular meaning. As he told Playboy, in 1966: “I’m not concerned with popularity, and it’s pointless to speak of philosophic intent. After each picture I often don’t recall what my intentions were. Intentions are only instruments to put you into condition to do something, to start you off.”
This feels applicable to La Dolce Vita. Going into the movie, Fellini likely was determined to make a neorealist-cum-romantic opera centered around one man’s hunt for meaning in an increasingly unsatisfying life. But ultimately, this the kind of movie whose success depends on how we experience it. Not how we take to the calculations of the artist putting this particular array of images in front of us.
Fellini started shooting the movie in 1959, mostly on Roman streets primarily characterized by nightclubs, cafés, busy roads — anywhere that bustled and felt alive. At the center of all the buzz was the actor who’d come to be something of his muse, Mastroianni, who here plays Marcello, a suave columnist who’s always surrounded by a cavalcade of paparazzi. A couple streaks of grey line his perfectly coiffed hair.
The film is made up of a series of what have come to be considered either vignettes or chapters, depending on your outlook. For nearly three hours, we live through seven days and nights as experienced by the focal Marcello. Over the course of the film, he continues an affair with a bruised heiress (Anouk Aimée), has a fantastical romantic exchange with an epicurean movie star (Anita Ekberg), deals with the suicide attempt of his lady love (Yvonne Furneaux), visits his Alain Cuny-portrayed friend Steiner (whom Marcello wishes he could be), takes part in a quasi-orgy, and even comes across a modern-day equivalent of a leviathan.
For La Dolce Vita’s entirety, Marcello is bombarded with seemingly tangible ideals that consistently come to be smothered by reality or fear. With the heiress, he envisions an exciting life defined by electric exchanges of dialogue and satisfying sex. But he soon comes to notice that the easily distracted she can only offer him those two things. With his fiancée, he envisions the domestic bliss Steiner seems to possess. But this is betrayed by the truth that Marcello is so terrified of commitment that he regularly emotionally wounds the woman who loves him. It is also betrayed by the fact that, later in the film, Steiner, supposedly lost in delusion, kills his children and then himself. This destroys all of Marcello’s notions that a happy marriage and a couple of kids could rid him of all his woes.
With the actress, who is a visual representation of hedonism as a concept, Marcello understands that even the greatest of pleasures cannot keep him forever gratified. (By the time the night is over, the actress couldn’t care less about what Marcello might have to offer her later on.) And with the orgy, and then the run-in with the dead sea beast, Marcello is reminded of his own mortality. There will come a point, he figures, where nothing in his life, even the disappointments that leave him numbed, will matter.
La Dolce Vita is a stream of “what-ifs” that never comes with answers or reassurances. What if Marcello never finds true love? What if there never comes a moment in his career where he is really respected or fulfilled? What if there comes a time where his vices can no longer act as temporary escapes from his existential worries? The film’s ambiguous ending, which prominently features the previously mentioned brush with the possibly talismanic monster, suggests that all we see in La Dolce Vita constitutes a cycle. Marcello will forever be trying to figure out what makes life worth living and never know the answer. He will keep having days and nights like these.
Someday, he might resemble his father, with whom he spends some time during the middle of the film. He will become so exhausted with trying to prove to himself that his existence is worth something that losing himself in small talk, going to bed early, and generally carrying on without too deeply thinking about what things could be will seem good enough. Maybe that will be more livable than what he’s going through now.
All this misery is ironic, though, because it’s clear that Marcello is among those people we might at first think “have it all.” His career is spent doing what he seems to love. He gets to hang out with movie stars and other public figures. Beautiful women are more than willing to sleep with him. His life seems to mostly consist of drinking and dining and customarily having a good time. He is handsome, eloquent. This idea of spotlessness is further perpetuated by the fact that the film surrounding him is so diaphanously shot. The black and white of the cinematography is elegant and crisp, and almost all the areas in which Marcello spends his time are luxe and aesthetically pristine. At first sight, he appears to be a vision — a beautiful person who says, does, and pursues beautiful things. We wish we could be like him.
But Fellini progressively clarifies that all this visual immaculacy, like so much of what Marcello does, doesn’t mean anything. It is yet another way to show that our perceptions of something do not always mirror the truth. Even our own perceptions don’t always line up with our own. I first saw La Dolce Vita years ago. And I didn’t take to it so emotionally. I found Marcello’s journey fascinating, but I pitied him, and considered the movie to be a cerebral, narratively riveting character study. Now I empathize with him. As the years pass by and I find my self-doubts and dislike of the frequent monotony of simply existing increasing, I can see myself in Marcello: ultimately well-meaning, yet still prone to ephemerally losing my drive, my motivation, and my sensitivity toward others when things temporarily seem hollow. I wonder what I’ll think of La Dolce Vita five years from now, five years after that, and so on.
Did Fellini want it to be this way? Did he go into the making of this movie hoping it would be significant to so many people, so easily able to shift in its tone and meaning with the passage of time? Did he see himself in Marcello? Did Mastroianni see himself in Marcello? How much of what we’re seeing is subconsciously based off personal experience? How much is melodrama? No need for conclusive answers, though — like life itself, it’s better we navigate things ourselves. A+