I found myself with a lot of trepidation in writing about Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” It’s one of my favorite movies ever, now re-released in a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection. But what could I possibly add to the mountain of great film writing already accumulated around one of the greatest films ever made, perhaps the greatest Italian film?
And how could I even begin to encapsulate all that’s there in the nearly three-hour film, stuffed with allegory and politics, poetry and satire, romance and disillusionment? Could a food critic review an entire buffet?
I’ll take my whack at it, anyway. “La Dolce Vita” spends a week following Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a celebrity-journalist journalist-celebrity wooing and stalking Rome’s rich and famous. The film’s iconic opening shot puts Marcello perfectly in his place — a helicopter carries a statue of Jesus, who flies over Rome, looking down on all Romans, schoolboys and construction workers, prostitutes and landed gentry alike. Marcello? He’s in the other helicopter, the one filming the spectacle.
That shot is unforgettable, but on rewatching the film another early one jumped out at me — Marcello in a nightclub at the table of some German nobleman. The royal is cruelly dismissive of Marcello, who crouches down next to his table, like a boy who has wandered away from the kids’ table. Marcello doesn’t belong at the big table, but he’s above the paparazzo and other gadflies stalking the celebs from afar. He has just enough notoriety to realize how far away from greatness he is, he’ll ever be.
Marcello’s misadventures take him from party to party, mistress to mistress. He famously romances a Swedish actress (Anita Ekberg, forever remembering for splashing in the Trevi Fountain), chases word of a miracle in the countryside that becomes a media frenzy, takes his father out on the town, tries and fails to work on his novel, and collapses in self-loathing at a party of grotesques. Each day has enough richness for its own movie, and taken together the experience of watching “La Dolce Vita” is exhausting but exhilarating.
With his life so full, how can Marcello’s life be so empty? A few characters recognize this, perhaps most tellingly the young waitress at the seaside restaurant who distracts Marcello from his writing. She turns up again in the film’s famous ending, as the grotesque partygoers stagger on the beach at dawn like scuttling crabs. The waitress spies Marcello among them and tries to get his attention, to ask how the novel is going. But he can’t hear her over the rush of the surf. That part of his life, the part to aspire to be more than he is, has slipped away. It’s a devastating ending.
The new Criterion Blu-ray edition has a wonderful 4K transfer that makes the lustrous black-and-white photography pop on screen. The extras are a mix of archival interviews of Fellini and Mastroianni that were available on the original DVD release and some new features. The interview with scholar David Forgacs opened up a whole new dimension of appreciation for me in explaining the political and social changes that Italy was going through at the time “La Dolce Vita” was made, as the old Italy was giving way to a new, richer, gaudier one.
Also unmissable is a video essay by the artist known as “:: kogonada,” who looks at the film’s final shot, in which the waitress’ gaze shifts from Marcello into the camera just as the image fades to black. Yes, “La Dolce Vita” is a film whose final image can inspire a video essay all its own. The terrain is that rich.