Jean Parker, c.1940 🎞
Jean Parker, c.1940 🎞
Bebe Daniels, c.1930 🎞
“You are everything... everything! You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You are mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, earth, home.”
What to make of Federico Fellini? Widely recognized as a masterful filmmaker, but with a string of films to his name that would probably have a hard time holding the attention of today’s audience. Fellini excels in the details, in creating busy, festive (and at the same time gloomy) scenes and bizarre, wandering characters.
Just like the characters - mostly male seducers and the women in their lives - the story doesn't really clearly go anywhere. This is also the case in the film known as Fellini's most accessible film: La dolce vita.
In La dolce vita the main character is papparazzi journalist Marcello (played convincingly by Marcello Mastroianni). Marcello is a freeloader and a charming seducer. He’s failed to become a famous writer and is stuck in a profession he seems to have little respect for.
The parasitic nature of the papparazzi is very evident throughout the film, the press is everywhere to capture and amplify everything that happens. Marcello is thus part of those "hyenas", but what he is more concerned with are the parties of the elite and his affairs with many attractive women.
Two women who seem to represent opposite worlds are the luscious platinum blonde film star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and Marcello's beautiful, loyal but jealous fiancée Emma (Yvonne Furneaux). Emma adores Marcello and would do anything for him, while Sylvia is mainly concerned with her own sensuality.
Marcello treats Emma shamefully, telling Sylvia (in Italian, which she doesn't understand well) that she unites all that is feminine. Sylvia is unpredictable and seductive at the same time, a modern Venus as she frolics in the Trevi fountain in Rome.
For Marcello, she embodies infatuation, the elusive and sparkling, while Emma suffocates him with her "aggressive, gooey, motherly love". Still, he keeps coming back to Emma's bed and Sylvia disappears as suddenly as she came. It’s as if Marcello also knows that his licentious, carefree life can’t last forever, as he constantly shifts back and forth between the safe "love" of Emma and the exciting "lust" of women like Sylvia and Maddalena (Anouk Aimée). He is eternally restless and dissatisfied.
Likewise, his good friend Steiner (Alain Cuny) eludes him, whom he envies for (both his economic and cultural) wealth and nice family. But Steiner doesn’t find his own situation enviable either, he detests the protected, neatly arranged life. He speaks poetically about how it should be according to him: "We should love each other, as if there was no time”.
Just as Marcello goes where his assignments take him, so we go - in a wonderfully loose, sensually meandering plot - where the film takes us: we swiftly move through restaurants, dance clubs, cabarets, luxury flats and through the partying on Via Veneto; we meet whores, actors, artists, would-be intellectuals and clowns; Fellini treats us to an overwhelming tour of the Eternal City.
In one of the most delightful scenes, in a nightclub decorated like a Roman temple, a frenzied party starts: beautiful people dance the conga, a rock and roll group takes over, Anita Ekberg throws off her shoes and shouts: “Come on, everyone, follow me! ”and suddenly everyone starts dancing in her wake while the saxophone and electric guitars converge in a frenzy - a scene you can’t ever grow tired of.
In one of the most famous scenes in film history, Anita Ekberg wades through the water of the Trevi Fountain, Why? Because her character is in a rash mood, of course. But also because Fellini simply knew that that moment, in that setting and with that actress, would produce a scene for eternity. And because he wanted to share with the audience the inner joy he must have felt as he directed the whole scene.
But beware: suddenly a bitter, melancholic tone seeps into the film. All of a sudden, you realise that Marcello, who we first thought was the ultimate emblem of cool, is in fact a tragic, self-hating man who feels as much disgust as fascination for the world in which he moves.
Marcello and his celebrity friends are party animals, trying to escape earthly existence at night, making their lives as intense and vibrant as possible, but that doesn't mean they are spared the terrible blows their inner demons inflict on them...
The beautiful life they lead turns out to be only a wafer-thin, increasingly crumbling facade; "La Dolce Vita" is the portrait of an illusion. Fellini takes the bitterness to an insane climax at the last party, when Marcello finally snaps - suddenly we see him riding on the back of a drunk woman and we see him scatter the feathers from a torn pillow over the drunken partygoers, who are now one by one leaving the house, as if to bless them. Poor souls. All parties come to an end. The film’s title couldn’t be more fittingly ironic.
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Dorothy Gish, 1926 🎞
What movie do you recommend this week?
Now streaming on the Criterion Channel
Pola Negri 🎞
Ursula Andress, 1964 🎞
Elke Sommer, 1959 🎞
Myrna Loy, 1931 🎞
Alice Day, c.1925 🎞
Katy Jurado 🎞
Doris Day, 1951 🎞
Jean Peters, 1949 🎞
Dolores del Río, c.1930 🎞
Lillian Gish, c.1911 🎞
Tuesday Weld 🎞
Diana Rigg, 1960s 🎞
Virna Lisi, 1965 🎞
Joan Collins, c.1955 🎞
Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)