Publisher’s Note: Spoiler alert: some of the film’s important plot points are discussed here. The reader may want to view or re-view the film before reading further. OR, read further and then watch the film to shape your own thoughts.
I remember it was 1960. I was a young student actor. A line of cinephiles stood outside the 8th Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village waiting for admission to see the just released Federico Fellini film, La Dolce Vita. In a couple of days, I would be part of that line. It was a must see for me—European, exotic, featuring attractive actors and, very importantly, it was the work of an auteur. I was, as were millions, enthralled by my initial viewing and then again by several more over the decades.
In La Dolce Vita, Fellini presents a document of his time and an entertainment of his liking, often simultaneously. In a recent viewing, the film lost some of its luster. Fellini hyperbolizes unnecessarily. A too-zany rock and roll band; exaggerated sexual acting out—Did Fellini mean to be intentionally silly?; a sad nightclub clown dropped in from some other Fellini film; a shallow press conference where a reporter asks Anita Ekberg’s character, “Do you do Yoga?”. Fellini had a penchant for society’s shiny objects. But Ekberg’s blonde bombshell now seems a mere artifact. Her famous wade in Rome’s Trevi Fountain with the fawning Marcello Mastroianni trailing her seems dimmed after so many staged photo-ops since then. Interestingly, when Mastroianni died in 1996, the fountain was turned off and draped in black as a sign of mourning.
Many elements remain strong and effective. Otello Martelli’s black & white cinematography, like rich black ink on fine paper, the super-white slabs of buildings and broad streets when we are jolted from night into day. In La Dolce Vita neither day nor night offers relief; the motion of Fellini’s camera with his lateral movement within the wide angle shot; the costume designs of Piero Gheradi; the overall casting, especially Yvonne Furneaux as Marcello’s insecure, maternally driven girlfriend and Annibale Ninchi as his big-hearted Father; the music of Nino Rota, which immediately freshens every scene. Rota succeeds like his mid-century contemporaries, Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon); Anton Karas (The Third Man) and Theodorakis (Zorba the Greek); the trenchant dialogue of Fellini’s co-screen writers, Ennio Flanio, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi. When one of the characters says very early on, “I’d like to hide but I can’t”, “I can’t stand on my feet, “Only love gives me strength”, I know I am going to spend the next two hours with human frailty and negativity. Ingmar Bergman is one of the very few other filmmakers who could begin a film with such confessions. The writers do well to give us the “Existentialism blather” of the Steiner salon scene. I imagine Camus telling Steiner’s guests to be quiet and go take a walk along the seashore.
Partygoers do go the beach in the last scene but don’t stay long. Albert Camus died in a car crash in 1960, the year of the film’s American premier. I don’t know whether or not he saw the film. I would have loved to have spoken with him about it if he did.
Then there is the presence of Mastroianni as Marcello, a slick, low brow newspaper journalist, who is stuck without a way and doesn’t trust himself enough to seek beyond the Roman nightlife and sex. Mastroianni is more than an appealing figure; he was already an actor with a free craft, who was always, always thinking the thoughts of his character rather than his own. There are few actors who can do this consistently. He would go on to become the best European film actor of his generation.
I don’t mind the film reminding me that the very rich are often consumed with nothingness. There is just so much that the human being can think about Self (rich or not). Self-loathing is just beneath the skin and slick apparel of the bored coterie who lounge on Fellini’s sets. More, he shows how the rich can act like children looking for yet more gratification. Indeed, La Dolce Vita is in good part about the dead end of selfish gratification regardless of the size of one’s bank account.
But the core of the film is the humanism of two scenes, which I have never tired of. The Steiner sequences and the closing, which is the most significant final scene is all of cinema. Here Fellini reveals his compassion and his sadness. He will again express this compassion in the final scene of his next film, his masterwork, 8 ½ (1963).
Marcello sees Steiner, with whom he has a passing acquaintance, enter a church. Steiner, a philosopher and family man, is played by Alain Cluny in an indelible performance. Marcello goes into the church to see him. Steiner takes him to the organ loft and plays a Bach fugue for him. Marcello can concentrate on it only for a few seconds and then has to turn away. Its depth is too much for him to commit to. They agree on wanting to spend more time together. The intellectual and the gossip columnist. Fascinating but not strange. Why do they respect each other’s sensitivities? In a later conversation they reveal to each other that they feel trapped to the point of mental dis-ease. Steiner is stuck in his head. He simply thinks much too much. It is the subtle lure of ego. Marcello, who wants to be a serious writer has not the requisite self-confidence. His self-respect has been eroded, a result of his rudderless lifestyle.
We next see them together with guests in Steiner’s apartment in what we suppose is a regularly occurring salon of “idea talk.” Steiner and Marcello remove themselves for a private conversation. Steiner tells Marcello, “Peace frightens me. I am afraid of peace of mind more than anything else. To me it seems that it is only an outer shell and that hell is hiding behind it.” And then, “One should live outside of passions, beyond emotions.” He says he, “wishes to be detached”. Peace of mind is an idea, and one cannot be detached if one is stuck in one’s head. Marcello confesses, “I should change. Once I had ambitions. I forgot everything.” It is spoken with a wistfulness borne out of a puzzling helplessness.
Fellini does not allow the scene to become saturnine. Earlier, I mentioned Fellini’s humanism. It blossoms forth here in the form of sympathy. Sympathy I felt for the two men. It is the result of the writing, direction and the playing of Cluny and Mastroianni. See how Steiner is filmed speaking in half – length profile. As if he were half there, half gone. In this scene we also meet Steiner’s two young, golden children and his humble, angelic wife.
Later, in a seaside café, Marcello meets another Fellini angel, a young waitress, and engages her in conversation. He tells her she has a face like the angels in the paintings found in the churches of Umbria. This encounter is a set-up for the final scene. The waitress is played by a teenage Valentina Ciangottini. Her face, as framed in the film’s closing shot, has become an icon for those with affection for the art of cinema.
Soon comes the scene where the police have taken over Steiner’s apartment. Marcello rushes there and is permitted entrance with his press pass. Steiner has murdered his two children and shot himself in the temple. His wife is out on errands. I still very much appreciate Fellini’s compassionate touch when, upon her return home, the police carefully take her, puzzled and distraught, off to the station, before she is able to enter her building.
Why Steiner committed suicide and infanticide has been cause for much analysis and discussion. A one- hour documentary was made on the question. When asked, Fellini said he didn’t know why. This is not surprising and evidence of his frequent reliance for story decisions on intuition and his desire to shock. He admitted it was meant to shock the audience. The attempt to shock underlies much, though not all, of the film. I will not offer a reason why any person takes their own life. However, it is clear from the writing and playing that Steiner’s delusion is that he cannot be fully satisfied by an angelic wife and golden children, but by living high above reality in a utopia. I believe that Steiner knew sub-consciously that this is not possible. But for Marcello, the possible is too easily at hand. His default is the indulgent glamour of the Via Veneto nightlife.
We wonder what impact Steiner’s suicide will have on Marcello. We soon see as he and his ribald friends scamper into the beach house of a wealthy Roman associate of one of the group. A pathetic party begins immediately. The characters attempt to force themselves into having a good time. Fellini wants to give each of his cast some screen time thus making for a scene that is far too long. Eventually the party makers leave the beach house and, like sheep, walk to the shore of the sea, thus setting the stage for the final scene.
This scene has never lost its brilliance for me. If we can say the closing scene of On the Waterfront is the most telling exhibition of redemption in cinema, we can say that its counterpart in La Dolce Vita is, in terms of human frailty, its apposite.
The party characters have gathered around a gigantic, dead Manta Ray on shore that has been caught in a net. Marcello looks down at the monster. Fellini shows us one, just one, if its eyes looking up at him. Marcello returns the stare with a look, as if to say, I’m not afraid of you. Marcello, in fact, is not practiced at facing his fears. He is drawn to a faint call coming from his left and looks toward it. The party characters do not hear it and remain with the giant fish. It is her, the young girl he met in the café. The girl with a face like the angels in the churches in Umbria.
She is beckoning with calls and hand gestures for him to join her. They are separated by a little inlet of shallow water. Marcello cannot hear her because of the waves on the shore. Her beckoning becomes pleading with gentle smiles. Who is she for Fellini? Who is she for the viewer? A symbol of purity? Perfection? In Jungian terms—the Principle of Anima? Salvation? For me the latter. Here we are seeing human existential pathos. Believing that we cannot make a choice for the better. Finally, Marcello shrugs and raises his hands in an Italian gesture that says, “Impossible, I give up.” Mastroianni plays it with finality but also embarrassment. He knows he is making a choice to return to la dolce vita. One of the party group, a female, comes over and takes him by the hand to rejoin them. The camera cuts to an exquisite closeup of the girl giving him a ciao wave, smiling. Accepting of his imperfection, she then turns her face ever so slightly to look into the camera just for a second to look at us, as if to say, “What about you?” Fade out. End of film.
Fellini had broken the theatrical Fourth Wall in the final scene of a previous film, Nights of Cabiria (1957) starring his wife, Giulietta Masina in the title role. Cabiria, forlorn, tears streaming down her face, is walking among a group of revelers. As she walks, her mood gradually changes, and she begins to smile as she turns to the camera. What is she thinking? Fade out. Fellini is once again leaving it to us to decide and walk with her.
Roshi Gregory Hosho Abels is a Zen Master at Still Mind Zendo in Manhattan, NYC. His works of poetry include, Where to Begin, Glimpses & Pointings and Never Something Else. He enjoyed a 54-year career as an actor, director and Master Teacher of Acting. Greg holds a B.S. in Theatre and Religion from SUNY. He lives with his wife in Greenwich Village and on a sheep farm in the Hudson Valley.