The auteur Frederico Fellini always manages to touch upon something inherent to human nature in his epic films whether it is the delusions of a man sinking slowly into insanity 8 1/2 or the tragic nostalgia of existing as portrayed in Amarcord. The Italian director's 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita, or The Sweet Life, is certainly not an exception. Using famed Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini creates a visually stirring study of an aging man as he realizes that his desires both physically and spiritually are unattainable and that his life is slowly flickering into nothingness, despite his best efforts to find meaning. As, I noted in an earlier review of Michelangelo Antonionni's Zabriskie Point, this concern with the existential self is a key element of Italian filmmaking. However, nobody seems capable of capturing the true despair of this philosophical rut, quite like Fellini, and La Dolce Vita is certainly his best existentialist work. From the sparsely constructed mise-en-scene's to the large cast of characters, La Dolce Vita is concerned only with the quest of one man as he realizes that his life is far more bitter than it will ever be sweet. La Dolce Vita is often described as a comedy, and while it certainly has hilarious moments, the laughs gained from this movie are only a result of peoples own realizations that their lives are tragically linked to Marcello's desperation. This link results in laughter, because to acknowledge it would be far too depressing.
The main character mentioned above is Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) an aging journalist who has come to loathe his job and the identity that is attached with such work. Despite his disdain for his own work, Marcello has little luck shaking off the paparazzi and journalists who constantly follow him. As a result, Marcello attempts to detach himself from his lackluster employment, by finding a romantic connection. His first encounter is with a Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) a woman he meets at a nightclub only to sleep with hours later. However, his rendezvous leads his current lover Emma (Yvonne Furneauz) to attempt suicide. After this encounter, Marcello meets the famous American actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) who is the object of seemingly every males affections. Marcello at first appears immune to Sylvia, until he is witness to her climbing up stairs at a local cathedral, it is during this time that he compares her to the Madonna and falls madly in love with her, claiming that she is equitable to the first woman ever created. However, his advances are quickly thwarted when after spending and evening playing in a local fountain he is beaten up by Sylvia's American lover Robert (Lex Barker). This failure to achieve love with his idea woman leads Marcello to find his answers through religion, which prove illogical first by his meeting with an old friend name Steiner (Alain Cuny) who sees church as nothing more than a place to play organ. Marcello's second encounter with the false support of religion arises when he helps cover a story of a purported sighting of a Madonna by children at a tree in the outskirts of Rome. This coverage quickly goes awry when rain begins to pour and the film technology begins to break. This confusion paired with impatient attendees attempting to gain their own "healing" from the tree leads Marcello to leave the scene in with a greater amount of disillusionment. These attempts at finding answers to his life's meaning continue as Marcello seeks solace in intellect, family, money and his past only to discover that each quest is as useless as the first at which point we are shown Marcello at what appears to be a party a few years following the previous events, given his now graying hair. At this party, Marcello attempts to instigate an unwanted orgy amongst the attendees only to be stopped by the owner of the house, at which point Marcello rips open a down pillow and showers the party guests in feathers as he introduces them as performers in a play. The film then shows the partygoers on the beach as they admire a large stingray with awe. Marcello then notices the call of a girl from across the beach and quickly recognizes her as a young waitress from a restaurant he had attended years earlier. She attempts to yell out words to him, but neither he, or the viewer, can comprehend her words. Instead, he simply smiles and walks back to his party, leaving the young girl to be excited about life, while he wallows in his continued existentialism. This closing, while uncertain, might imply that the only way to assure a life with meaning, is to remain ignorant to the fact that their is no meaning, however, Fellini offers such an ending in irony, for to do so would be to state definitively that there is no meaning.
So all this talk of existentialism, can cause the film to seem irrelevant, or as an existentialist would put it...inherently meaningless. While some existentialist would say that this is the case, most would argue that even though the ultimate end is nothing, one should not stop from being amazed by single moments as they occur, whether it be something like falling in lover, or witnessing the natural awe of the world. It is quite apparent that a film like La Dolce Vita, while bittersweet, certainly adheres to the latter. Fellini's film is a celebration of moments that are beautiful, whether it be Marcello's infatuation with Sylvia, which leads to a poetic dance in water, or, a group of aging intellectuals admiring the ambient sounds of the natural world. Fellini is not suggesting that a person should find despair in the fleeting world around them, instead he suggest that we should take solace in the moments while they last, because they will provide a person with some semblance of happiness. Fellini certainly drives this point home with his comparison of Steiner and Marcello as characters. Steiner states during a party that he is not as tall and powerful as people believe him to be and is actually quite self-loathing. His own despair is never dealt with which leads him to commit suicide and kill his children in the process. This, at first, comes as a surprise to viewers given his claims to find beauty in his children. However, it is quite apparent that his beauty is rooted in jealousy for Steiner and his violent act serves as revenge. Similarly, Marcello has his own run in with the beauty of youth through the young waitress, with whom he openly discusses the beauty of ignorance. However, instead of exacting revenge on the young woman for her sweet innocence, Marcello decides to step away and ignore his jealousy. The films closing scene of him turning his back on youth may seem dark, but what it really implies is Marcello's own transcendence of his existential longing for something different. Ultimately, Marcello realizes his meaningless life is still his own and while it ends in nothingness, at least it is his own nothingness to possess.
This is a giant of an Italian film both literally and figuratively, and is one of the few Italian films I can fully support as being a masterpiece. I cannot recommend viewing it enough and would suggest getting a copy for your collection. However, it has yet to be released on Bluray so waiting awhile might not be a terrible idea.