Our Man on La Dolce Vita

08.9.2004 | Jonathan Leaf | Film | 1 Comment

In the movie “La Dolce Vita” Marcello Mastroianni played a sleazy celebrity journalist, someone who by the film’s conclusion can and will write most anything if he thinks it will serve his career or fatten his wallet.

Proof of the movie’s continued relevance can be found in an article in the current Harper’s Bazaar in which Ben Affleck writes about John Kerry’s quite attractive but by no means gorgeous daughters:

“Alex Kerry is a filmmaker and an actress in Los Angeles.  Vanessa goes to Harvard Medical School in Boston.  The two of them are so absurdly beautiful, well-spoken and intelligent and such phenomenal achievers that, if you didn’t know them, they might come off as the too-perfect prep school girls who are invariably the villains in John Hughes’ movies.”

Yes, having been the constant subject of nonsensical stories in the tabloid press, Affleck is now writing nonsensical stories of his own.  (The victim becomes the victimizer; the abused child is now an abuser.)

As writer Toby Young pointed out in his bestselling book How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, it’s now fashionable to be a gossip-monger; being a gossip-writer is a means to get into the hip parties and to get reservations at the trendy restaurants.  Yet, if the people you’re writing about are famous and have a powerful publicist, you’re obligated to kowtow if you wish to succeed.

“La Dolce Vita” was the film that coined the term “paparazzi”, and it remains the most inspired and psychologically perceptive examination of the contemporary process by which journalists and writers switch from being people who question their own character to people of questionable character.  

A current revival showing of the movie at New York’s Film Forum is a reminder of this — and also a reminder of both how much and how little there can be in the best films.

Like all of the great Fellini’s movies, “La Dolce Vita” is a spectacle, making brilliant use of striking locations (most notably the Trevi Fountain and St. Peters) , beautiful and fascinating faces (Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee) and imaginative editing.  Its dialogue is suggestive and evocative.  The performances and the actors are memorable.  And, episodic though the film is, it manages to sustain interest — truly to dazzle— for almost the whole of its near three-hours.  Surely, it is among the most extraordinary films ever made.  Seeing it again, one can’t help but be scornful of the hyping of the current rank of so-called hyphenates — writer-directors — making “socially engaged” films.  To compare, say, Spike Lee to Fellini is to embarrass oneself..  “La Dolce Vita” wasn’t made to court headlines, and yet the scale it works on — visually and imaginatively — has rarely ever been equaled in film history. Its minor characters — the crapulent husband of an American movie star, a rich industrialist’s promiscuous daughter, a waitress in a coastal resort — are as vital and memorable as those in “Children of Paradise” or “Rules of The Game” but the film’s sweep and style is as great, or greater, than that of  even “Lawrence of Arabia”.  “La Dolce Vita” is at once funny and melancholy, acidulous and exalting.

And yet…and yet the film’s weaknesses are almost as noticeable as its strengths.  One of the film’s central subplots involves an existential murder-suicide which is depicted with a pretend thoughtfulness and a seeming world-weary understanding that, at its heart, is utterly bogus.  Moreover, though we recognize its characters we do so without ever really knowing them from within in the manner that we know the best characters in novels.

But perhaps this last failing is not accidental, but rather a prescient look at the emptiness too often engendered by our new culture of celebrity, a phenomenon that “La Dolce Vita” vividly identified before it had even come entirely into being.

I had the pleasure of being the student of one of Fellini's best friends; a Mr. Riccardo Aragno (he is portrayed as the fellow that shares Fellini's room in ROMA), a wholly delightful, cantankerous, genius of a man. La Dolce Vida was a topic of constant consideration and commentary for him.
When Fellini came to Rome, he was a cartoonist who hated the cinema. It was through his encounter with Rossellini and Neo-Realism that he would arrive at modern cinema. La Dolce Vida is the film that killed Neo-Realism.
Rossellini had pushed for the emergence of a new art that would be the realization of the ideals of the Partisan movement. These ideals enthralled Fellini as a scriptwriter, launched him as a director (with the incomparable Pasolini as his screenwriter) and came to a crashing end with La Dolce Vida.
La Dolce Vida is Neo-Realism but for the children of Italy's economic miracle. By 1960 the Partisan dream of a new society was dead and La Dolce Vida is its obituary. Not prostitutes, war brides, day laborers, but cameramen, gossip columnists and film stars.
Steiner stands in the place of those who had believed in that dream.
For Americans, La Dolce Vida is an expression of modern ennui. For Italians it is not an existential or aesthetic statement but a political and ethical agonized scream. In this context, the Steiner is a central part of the story and essential for the final debasement of Rubini.
Another note: Fellini always courted headlines and La Dolce Vida is packed full of such moments (The lying children of the miracle, prostitutes, decadent royalty, and the orgy scene). Now that's entertainment!
08.9.2004 | j.e. D'ulisse

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