Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

La Dolce Vita

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that La Dolce Vita is not all it’s cracked up to be.

However, before I venture into such treacherous terrain, I should say that the NZFF’s newly restored print of this 1960 black and white classic is truly magnificent, and there is no better way to experience something that, whether I like it or not, is a work of art.

It’s true that Maestro Fellini produced an icon of Italian culture that is undeniably beautiful and compelling – there are images seared into our memories without our even having seen the film (notably Anita Ekberg’s frolic in the Trevi Fountain).  But by the end it simply feels overlong, noncohesive and vapid – and if indeed that’s the point of it, hence the ironic title, then Fellini has certainly produced a self-referential masterpiece.  I just wish he’d made it tighter.

Granted, the first half is a delight.  The dreamy Marcello Mastroianni plays a journalist who effortlessly ingratiates himself into the lives of the lovely and famous, avoiding a home-life with his jealous, suicidal fiancee while having flings with the likes of Maddalena (the exquisite Anouk Aimee).  When Swedish film star Sylvia comes to town, Marcello becomes part of her crowd.  He has an ambivalent relationship with the swarm of photographers who appear in every doorway, the principal named Paparazzo (which just goes to show how wide-reaching the influence of this film has been in the last half century).

For a while we lap up the heady, playboy lifestyle afforded to Marcello and his pals, revelling in Sylvia/Ekberg’s glamour and Aimee’s impeccable wardrobe.  However, once Ekberg leaves the scene, things get altogether more abstract.  The reporters race off to cover allegations that two young children have seen the Madonna.  Sick people are brought out on stretchers, it rains, chaos ensues.  There are fights, recriminations, ugly words hurled between lovers, and uncomfortable reconciliations.  Marcello attends a party of interesting people, and we realise he is longing for a different life, but can’t see how to attain it.  Nihilism starts to seep into the tone of the film, as eccentric party-goers entertain themselves with bizarre rituals.  It all feels rather empty, and a bit depressing.

Obviously La Dolce Vita is about how life isn’t that sweet at all.  What lost me as we got into the third hour was just how Fellini intended to put his message across.  The narrative becomes rambling and many scenes desperately in need of judicious editing.  If the point is to show us how noncohesive and vapid life can be, the point is made, but laboriously.  Furthermore, our hero – the man whose story is supposed to transport us through this view of the world – descends into someone even less likeable than the narcissistic, emotionally stunted journalist we first meet.  Marcello’s answer to his problems is to move into advertising and bully a young woman at a party.

My issue isn’t with long films per se – there was for me no greater delight in 1996 than realising, mid-film, that Heat was going to go on past two hours.  Last year the NZFF brought back Visconti’s Senso, and my personal festival highlight the 175-minute Once Upon A Time in the West.  By comparison, Fellini’s masterwork ultimately lacks narrative drive (even compared with the also-challenging 8 1/2), and by the end of it the various set-pieces failed to enthrall this reviewer.

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