#2 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
For a movie that seems to have a reputation as a loose collection of events, La Dolce Vita is surprisingly tightly built. This is my third or fourth viewing of the film, and my appreciation for it just grows with every new visit to this mad look at the circus that was Rome in the late 50s.
Federico Fellini found the perfect actor to play Marcello Rubini. Marcello Mastroianni was the Italian Cary Grant, the consummate movie star, and he eases into the role of the society journalist Rubini with aplomb. He’s slick when he talks to women, deflecting when he talks to men, and he carries himself with suave indifference to most of what he sees. That feeling of floating through life, though, isn’t just an affectation to bring along because Mastroianni was a cool guy in real life, that’s the core of the contradiction at the heart of Rubini as a character.
Like many Fellini protagonists, Rubini is caught between worlds. He comes from a small town (not by the seaside) but lives in Rome, adjacent to the rich and famous. He wants to write serious literature, but he actually writes gossip columns about the rich and famous. He’s engaged to an attractive woman of no real social importance, but he’s constantly trying to (and occasionally succeeding at) bedding women of incredible wealth. He’s a man of physical sensations, but he does seem to yearn for more spiritually. As we progress through the series of episodes, we watch Rubini explore the contradictions within himself, and even progress through his life with views of how he will end up.
So, it’s hard to talk about this without just delving into the individual episodes in order, but oh well. The first sees Rubini meeting up with Maddalena, a wealthy heiress he knows, at a swanky club. They drive off after Rubini receives a threat from someone he harmed with a column, and they pick up a prostitute before going to the prostitute’s hovel of a home, complete with flooded floors, and make love in her bed while the prostitute waits outside. The next is the most famous sequence in the film where Rubini spends time with Sylvia, an American actress built out of pure sex that Rubini ends up completely falling for. He worships her, ends up getting her away from the crowd, and tries to find a place to bed her, completely stymied until she comes upon the Trevi Fountain and romps around in the movie’s most famous scene.
Rubini moves on to cover the reaction to a miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to two small children on the outskirts of the city. This is a larger, more circus-like version of a similar scene in Nights of Cabiria, as people crowd around a supposedly holy spot, desperate for some touch of the divine. Unlike Cabiria, though, Rubini doesn’t get sucked into the crowd. He ends up taking a spot in a light tower and watches from above. His fiancée, Emma, though stays below and does quietly pray for Rubini to become the faithful man she had fallen in love with. Much like Cabiria, there are views of the small pleas that come from genuine needful spaces, like a woman holding onto her child, both draped in black, kneeling by the small tree where the Madonna appeared, and begging for help for her sick girl. The way the soundtrack drops all of the crowd noise as Rubini focuses solely on her seems to indicate at least a desire to have that kind of deep feeling, but Rubini’s attention moves yet again to the circus that surrounds them.
The next sequence sees Rubini and Emma showing up to the luxurious apartment owned by Steiner, a friendly acquaintance of Rubini’s. The conversation is urbane and philosophical with a poet telling Rubini to shed any permanence (with Emma right there on the couch) and Rubini having a private conversation with Steiner who talks about the balance between his comfortable existence and his desire for something more to feed his spiritual needs. The next sees Rubini’s father making a surprise visit to Rome and spending the evening with his son in a nightclub. This is one of the more interesting episodes when it comes to viewing Rubini and his potential future. There’s a lot of his father in Rubini. They’re both womanizers with eyes towards getting what they want when they want it as evidenced by the father’s successful attempt at picking up a dancing girl that Rubini knows. When his father has some sort of health crisis as the woman’s apartment, he becomes circumspect after an evening of rabblerousing. On a certain level, it feels like Rubini is looking at his own future as his father struggles to get up from his chair after suffering what was probably a minor heart attack and struggling to catch the train to return home to his wife.
Later, Rubini accompanies some old money aristocrats to their remote castle where he watches this decrepit family saunter around their huge estate. There, he meets Maddalena again, and she confesses that she wishes to marry him but she can’t change who she is, and she is way too loose of a woman to be tied down to one man. Unable to see her because they’re using a sound echo to communicate across different rooms, Rubini confesses his desire to marry her as well (in a similar way that he confessed his love to Sylvia who didn’t understand his Italian), but she immediately falls into the arms of another man who walks up to her. She’s never seen again, and Rubini wanders through the crowd until he makes love to another woman in the abandoned structure they’re walking through.
Rubini later has a fight with Emma where she needs him to remain faithful to her, but he doesn’t want to change. He kicks her out of his car, leaves her on the side of the road for a few hours, and returns to pick her up after which they embrace tenderly in bed. He gets a call that Steiner had killed himself and his two children, and he has to go and try to help the police break the news to Steiner’s wife. The movie’s final sequence is its most grotesque and saddest. Rubini, long after having abandoned Emma, apparently, leads a group of low end showbiz types into the house of a friend where they tiredly attempt an orgy that never gets off the ground. As night turns to day, Rubini and the gang wander out to the beach where they see a dead leviathon dragged onto shore, and Rubini sees an innocent girl he had met earlier. They can’t hear each other over the pounding of the waves.
So, why recount the movie in such detail? The depth of this movie comes from Rubini’s navigation of these different set pieces and how they relate to his desire for change contrasted with his immutability. He wants to become the real writer, but he keeps finding reasons to ignore it in favor of the more frivolous stuff he does write. He wants to settle down with Emma, but he sees how Steiner commits suicide and his father seems so pathetic, so he ends up casting it aside. He wants something to fill the void in his soul like religion, but he can’t get past the artificiality of the spectacle around it. In every instance, he ends up choosing the easier way of life, the one detached from other people, challenges, or commitment, and where does he end up? Feebly trying to incite an orgy amongst a bunch of nobodies in someone else’s house, unable to even communicate with the innocent young woman not of this new grotesque world just a hundred yards away.
For a movie that is titled The Good Life and has this reputation of rich people being frivolous in a beautiful city, the movie’s really about how completely empty it is. I’m reminded of Terrence Malick when he went to Hollywood with Knight of Cups and came away with a movie about the emptiness of the place (La Dolce Vita is a whole lot better, though). They’re both movies that seem to revel in the details of their world, but the takeaway is not that these places and existences are fulfilling in anyway. Rubini could have made something great of himself, or he could have been happy with Anna. However, he ended up choosing pure frivolity, and he has nothing but a drunken stupor for it. Again, for a movie with a reputation of mad insanity and decadence, La Dolce Vita is shockingly focused and penetrative in theme.