Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Twenty-Eight


#28 — La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
I will concede from the beginning that I sometimes find the vivid abstractions of Federico Fellini to be too dizzying. I recognize his mastery of a certain form of cinema, even celebrate the way he eradicated boundaries with his skillful braiding of dream logic and traditional narrative. And yet there are times when there is just too much unpacking to be done, too much presented as a brazen challenge to the audience to find meaning in the obscurity. He writes an equation on a chalkboard and then uses an eraser to smear it into a streaky cloud, expecting the audience to understand the storytelling math anyway. I admire the experimentalism, but I also find it wearying in many of his films. This makes it all the more magical for me when Fellini’s approach coheres in a way that is fiercely impactful. La Dolce Vita has many of the very qualities that make Fellini challenging, even ripe for parody of its tendency for arty surrealism around the fringes. It also has a picturesque beauty, a stirring energy and a resonant lead performance from Marcello Mastroianni as a hedonistic, emotionally adrift journalist. Most importantly, it has a thundering point of view that comes across as both deeply personal and broadly bound to the greater concerns of Fellini’s society.

The film doesn’t exactly have a plot. Instead, it’s a collection of story fragments slid together into a mosaic that is more that its individual components might suggest. Like much of Fellini’s work, La Dolce Vita is calibrated to the elusive rhythm of memory, many of the images seeming as though they’ve been softened or heightened, always to the dictates of some indefinable inner whims. The ingenious effect is that the work resides more comfortably in the mind than on the celluloid print that original holds it, a quality that practically guarantees an endless relevance. It seems truer as it fades. Then again, it often seems true as can be as it unfolds too, with visuals like Anita Ekberg’s improbable torso as she basks in the frothy mists of a fountain or the denizens of a beach house slipping from debauchery into pure mayhem as a long night rolls on serving as the midnight chimes of a ceaseless spiritual descent.

If there’s a thesis to the film–and I realize that everything I’ve written up to this point argues that it’s the foolhardiest of actions to try and definitively name one–it’s the moral decay of a entire nation, whatever wounds World War II opened in Italy festering into gangrene of the soul. A statue of Jesus Christ in hauled across the sky in the film’s opening, the spiritual and ethical grounding he bestows upon a heavily Catholic country presumably following like a banner behind a prop plane. In Fellini’s assessment, it is a place lost, infiltrated by no less than Hollywood temptresses. The title may translate roughly as “the good life,” but there’s a pronounced irony to that, a forlorn aura to all the stabs at delighted, delirious excess. Maybe it takes the feverish creativity of a Fellini to unlock and expose the misery the underlies a certain sort of progress.

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