Monday, August 18, 2008
The Great Movies: "La Dolce Vita"
La Dolce Vita
Federico Fellini, 1959
I had started to worry that maybe I was anti-Italian. My recent encounter with the much-lauded classic The Bicycle Thief landed it on the heap of Italian films I find grossly overrated, along with such widely beloved movies as Cinema Paradiso (yawn...) or Life is Beautiful (a truly nasty little piece of work). And long time followers of the Great Movies project may remember my first encounter with Federico Fellini, in which I reviewed his 8 1/2 jointly with the Marx Brothers hit Duck Soup. I found them both pretty painful. I called 8 1/2 "absurdist fantasy... approached with all the subtlety and restraint of the sophomore class play."
So it was not without trepidation that I cued up the three-hour marathon that is La Dolche Vida. Yet, as the opening minutes went by, something surprising happened. Gradually, my sneer relaxed. Gradually, I began not only to appreciate the images flashing before me, but to care about the characters. I began to enjoy the movie! A breakthrough! And so, I am happy to report that La Dolche Vida is not grossly overrated! It is, at worst, mildly overrated!
It is, first and foremost, a lovely moving picture, packed with memorable images. An element of surrealism is present -- especially during the ensemble scenes, the characters act in highly stylized ways -- but we are not assaulted with crude symbolism to the extent we were in 8 1/2. The lead character, a failed writer who pays the bills as a hack celebrity journalist, suffers from the same ennui and emptiness as the protagonist in 8 1/2, but unlike that character he is still struggling, hoping to find meaning somewhere, and this restlessness makes him -- and the film -- much more interesting and moving.
Like 8 1/2, La Dolche Vida parodies the fast, glamorous, pointless lifestyle of artists, actors, aristocrats, and other intellectuals and glitterati of the early 1960s. Most of the action happens at night or in the grim light of dawn, at cafes, clubs, and parties. The protagonist moves in a colorful, multilingual, pan-European crowd of vivid faces and personalities, rather as if Tintin the boy reporter had reached his 30s and been assigned to the club beat. There is sex, there are drugs, and there is a bracing blast of pre-Beatles rock and roll; all of this diverts but fails to fulfill the characters, who have the misfortune to be living during the mid-century existentialism epidemic.
Everywhere there are reporters and photographers (this is the movie that introduced the word "paparazzi" into English) and they are eager, as in real life, to present the mundane aspects of celebrity as noteworthy and to package the events of the world into digestible, vacuous chunks. They stand ready to engineer a news event, if none volunteers itself. As a reporter, the protagonist renders everything meaningless; as a human being, he aches for the loss of meaning.
Plot: An alienated reporter for the celebrity press drifts through nights spent with minor celebrities. In a series of extended episodes, he fails: (1) to either heal his relationship with, or free himself from, his train wreck of a girlfriend; (2) to mend his relationship with his estranged father; (3) to score with a famous actress he finds himself suddenly smitten with; (4) to parley a meaningful friendship into a potentially meaningful affair; or (5) to emulate -- or to save -- the one person he seems to sincerely admire. Throughout, he fails in his ambition to write anything of substance. At the end, there's a big party, where he fails to act decently.
Images: Clearly Fellini's strong suit. I was interupted several times while watching, and every time I had to pause the movie, the randomly frozen image looked like a striking promotional still shot. That's how well composed and framed each scene is. There are lots of very memorable, evocative pictures throughout.
Dialog: In Italian. Since the dialog is often functioning to demonstrate the essential shallowness of the characters' concerns, it is by design a bit dim-witted. Many of the performances are similarly somewhat hammy, but the characters themselves are all rather hammy, so it works.
Prognosis: This seems like a good stop for someone curious about what all the Fellini fuss is about. It undid the damage of 8 1/2, leaving me with some respect for this most famous of directors. Also recommended for fans of movie photography, people interested in the European intellectual culture of the 50s and 60s, and lovers of European films in general.
The Great Movies Project: Explanation and Index