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Thoughts on La Dolce Vita

La Dolce Vita: the good/sweet life. But is life really that sweet, or good? Is Marcello a mere documenter of the various depravities of Rome, or an active relisher of them? And is a statue of Jesus flying over the outskirts of the Vatican necessarily profane?
The film begins and ends with miscommunication: firstly because of the wind, and then finally because of the sea. Yet, the circumstances are almost diametrically opposed. In the prologue, it’s the lure of four bikini clad women’s phone numbers (which Marcello cannot hear over the deafening helicopter rotors), but in the epilogue, it’s Paola (who we cannot help reading as anything other than a worldly manifestation of angelic innocence) who encourages our protagonist to start writing again. In both instances, mystification prevails. Just how lost is Marcello? We’re unsure. There are clearly some morally dubious decisions that hasten his descent into the inner circles (if we are to reduce the film to a mere allegory of Dante’s Inferno). Sleeping with a prostitute just a few hours before discovering his fiancée Emma has overdosed? Check. Cynically covering a dubious sighting of the Madonna for profit? Check. Leaving Emma alone in the middle of a deserted road after telling her he never loved her? Check, check, and check.
But perhaps his biggest sin of all is his prostitution of his talent. Various characters urge him to settle down and write his novel – he clearly has a knack for it. But the lure of the eternal city, with its women and its orgies and its parties and its intellectuals, is just too strong to resist. And as someone who struggles to make the time to say no to invitations and just sit down and write, the film’s sense of a potential untapped, or a loftier desire washed away in a sea of ill-discipline, is something that particularly hit home…
Fellini does a great job at capturing passionate, fleeting encounters that can never be recaptured. It’s as if he won’t allow Marcello a single moment to settle himself; in the end, perpetual flux prevails. Take the famous Trevi fountain scene; beautiful and charming, yes, but ultimately proven to be hollow, a dream that one is rudely awoken from (with some accompanying embarrassment…) Prior to that, Marcello is enjoying a dance with Sylvia, before the satyr-like Frankie intrudes with a whirlwind of Dionysian revelry, leaving Marcello clutching at something that has long since passed, like Aeneas grasping at the shade of Creusa. Later, when we see Marcello in a position of real vulnerability (sat on a chair alone in a room talking to Maddalena’s mysterious hidden voice, and admitting his love for her), another man comes to intrude. And so the story goes…
Perhaps the most touching scene in the film comes after Marcello’s father visits him for a night on the town (and also to show him how it’s done!) Their relationship seems healthy enough, but when his father insists that he must return to Cesena, we feel Marcello’s desperation – “Please stay until tomorrow, father”, “I can skip work tomorrow and we can stay together. We can talk a bit”, “We never see each other”. Is he clinging onto some anchor that will connect him to some more grounded past? I’m not sure; all I can say is that the scene of Marcello holding his father’s hand as he drives away in a taxi contains something horribly sad.


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