Taking a short break from our Halloween Countdown, I’d like to peek inside Federico Fellini’s sprawling masterpiece La Dolce Vita (1960) and, as part of The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, pick out my favorite image from the film. Since La Dolce Vita is like a zillion hours long (OK, more like three), I had a lot to choose from. I ended up saving 27 total screenshots. Some of my favorites were the repeated shots of women in profile; of people turning back as they’re about to exit a room; and of tiny figures seen in extreme long shot against desolate streets. But all in all, my best shot was one of Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), our jaded protagonist, sitting in an old room.
At this point in the film, Marcello is wandering around a centuries-old estate with his quasi-girlfriend Maddalena (Anouk Aimée). She has him sit down in this room, then goes and speaks into a passageway that makes her ghostly voice echo in the other room. When he realizes she can hear him, Marcello starts one of his impassioned, embarrassingly intimate pleas to Maddalena. Little does he know, she’s making out with another guy in silence. I love the subtle way this scene mocks the film’s narcissistic central character. After all, Marcello freely treats those around him like shit, so it’s gratifying when women he lusts after – whether Maddalena or the buxom starlet Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) – turn a deaf ear to his romantic entreaties.
This image is beautifully composed, as Marcello, the chair, the doors, and their shadows all visually interact. The setting also contains a few little ironies. Throughout La Dolce Vita, we’re treated to all these jarring meshes of religious and secular, old and new, frenzied and contemplative, profound and meaningless. Here, the ancient solemnity of an aristocratic Roman manor is the site of a petty, vulgar love affair between two rootless urbanites with too much time on their hands. But it’s not just a simple matter of black and white, either: Marcello’s monologue is poignant because he clearly does want to find a deeper purpose, but is held back by his own metaphysical near-sightedness. And the manor isn’t just stately and solemn; it’s also anachronistic and crumbling.
It’s fitting, then, that this crumbling house’s tenants, a wide-reaching family of decadent aristocrats, should be represented by typical Fellini grotesques. Il Maestro is still renowned for his ability to pick out memorable faces, and I think the image above is a great example. These blue bloods look so narcotized, as if they’re near death; they’re lounging about so lazily. The pearls, the smoke, and the disheveled hair are especially nice touches. (So is extensive supply of alcohol.) They look and act as if they’re leftovers from a wax museum. Just like their house, they’re lost to history, members of a family that has undoubtedly seen better days.
This noble family’s debased, apathetic nature makes Marcello’s visit to the mansion into a sort of ironized, no-stakes ghost story. The building’s untouched rooms and dark corridors are ominous, to be sure, but the hollow laughter of the family members and their guests takes away any sense of mystery or danger. Any power that the house might once have had is now totally devalued, as it’s just another dusty relic. Rome’s historical legacies are now on an equal plane with the shallow pursuits that, for Marcello & co., constitute the sweet life. I’ll end with an especially depressing image (why not!): after he perpetrates a tragic murder-suicide, Marcello’s friend Steiner is covered in a sheet by the police and left in his living room.
I’m not sure how to take this image, which is immediately followed by a dissolve to the next scene. In one sense, it reads as a very black joke in which Steiner’s inert, bloodied body has become just another piece of furniture. It also drives home just how murky the motivation behind Steiner’s action is. Either way, it’s akin to rest of La Dolce Vita in that it presents a serious tragedy in a slightly ridiculous light. In Fellini’s modern world, every action and emotion is commodified, as mosquito-like photojournalists try to convert lurid details into wider circulation and more money. For Marcello, feelings can only be expressed when they’re couched inside vulgar gestures. It’s a sweet life, isn’t it?