I just watched Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita the other night, and man, that shit was long. It wasn’t quite the powerhouse film I had assumed, but it was definitely interesting. My first thought upon finishing it had been that it was a “weird” movie. As time has passed, I’ve found myself going back and thinking more on it, and liking it more the more I think on it. It is a movie that made me realize how most cinema these days regard film merely as a medium of entertainment, rather than a powerful medium for exploration and philosophical and spiritual musing. Even the most intelligent films that come out now always have a slick veneer of hip-ness and mass production. If a film is not immediately understandable, or provide some tangibly conventional emotional pay-offs, or at least some cool action sequences, then audiences will shun it. Which is why I think my first reaction to La Dolce Vita was “what the fuck was that?” But over time, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle and circumspect narrative of its womanizing protaganist, Marcello.
The last scene in the film now seems to make a kind of poetic sense to me. When the “sea monster” is pulled up onto the shore, and the hip, world-weary party-goers flock around it and awe at its strangeness, Marcello seems to feel a kind of affinity to it. He says something about its eyes, how it still views the world, and the camera takes a second to linger, close-up, on the glassy dark eye of the unknown sea creature. Next, Marcello sees the young blonde girl, Paola, who symbolizes innocence and purity in the film, standing across the beach, waving and gesturing to him. He cannot understand her and he cannot hear her. He finally is gathered back with his decadent friends to return to the house party. Paola’s smiling face is the final image. To me, these final shots contrast the alien sea creature and Paola, and demonstrates to which Marcello is most closely aligned. He can relate more fully to the alien monster from the depths of the sea than he can to a girl who is uncorrupted (described by him as an “angel” when he meets her earlier in the film). The only way he can relate himself to women and to beauty is by the endless quest for fleeting sensual pleasures, which grow ever more desperate and unfulfilling. The divide which separates him from Paola is uncrossable. He might have been able to hear her once upon a time in his life, but no longer.
Another scene which demonstrates Marcello’s detachment from love and depth of feeling is revealed when he has the long distance conversation in the castle with Maddalena, and she tells him through the fountain that she wants to marry him and love him. He plays along with this game, even seeming to believe in it, as he grows excited and declaims his undying passion for her and his desire to marry her. She then declares that she is a whore and begins to make love to a young man, as Marcello searches for her unsuccessfully. This seems to be the closest he has ever been to declaring any kind of steadfast love, and it demonstrates just how far he is from even knowing what such love might be. Both he and Maddalena are incapable by that point of separating physical passion from deeper love.
There is much more to explore in this film, of course, from Marcello’s friend Steiner’s contrasted internal struggle for meaning while locked in a life of domesticity, to the lifestyles of the rich and famous as depicted in the film’s many party scenes, and on and on. But those two scenes above were the ones that struck me the most in terms of elucidating an underlying purpose to the film. I don’t know if I could say that La Dolce Vita was a film that I loved. It seems almost more of a film to study than to simply watch. But it does give me hope for cinema as an art form as opposed to consumer trash.