One may say that what great films have in common is a tendency to go beyond the particular story they are telling and reach the universality of the ideas underneath it. The connection between the true, universal object of the directors’ speculation and the particular storyline they employ for narrating it is what makes their films timeless. And indeed there are few films that managed to achieve such timelessness as much as Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960).
La Dolce Vita has been praised as one of the highest moment in the history of Italian filmmaking, as much as a turning point in Fellini’s career. It is the start of Fellini’s departure from his early neo-realistic works, such as La Strada, towards his later more surrealist works, such as 8 ½, Amarcord, Satyricon. It seems rather unexpected that a film so unconventional received such a unanimous acclamation from the critics and the public. In fact, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita stands at the antipode of the traditional cinematographic narrative style: the story itself is a carnivalesque parade of seemingly unconnected episodes narrating a week of the chaotic life of the protagonist, the gossip columnist Marcello, interpreted by Marcello Mastroianni in one of the finest and most memorable of his performances.
At a first glance, Marcello’s rambling adventures look like a chaotic collection of unconnected instances. The storyline does not start or end at defining moments of his life, and at the end of the film Marcello is still stuck with the same unsatisfying job, the same obsessive and suicidal girlfriend (Magali Noel), the same lascivious and decadent social surrounding, the same purposelessness. From his encounter with the rich heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) and their overnight stay in the basement of a prostitute’s apartment, we are thrown into his hopeless longing for the American diva Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), culminating in a dreamlike chase through the street of a sleeping Rome up to Sylvia’s dive in the Trevi fountain. From the cynical indifference with which Marcello observes the fanatic crowd running after a supposed Marian apparition, we are caught in his redemptive encounter with Steiner, his perfect family and his intellectual circle of friends, until the abrupt disenchantment caused by Steiner’s unsettling homicidal burst, up to the point where we are left alone and confused before the Dionysian celebrations of the closing scene.
The film’s structure in fact is based on two very simple paradigms: the circularity of the plot, which represents the vanity of Marcello’s escapism, and the alternation of nocturnal ascensions towards the hedonistic evasion and diurnal descents to the gloom of Marcello’s everyday existence. Once this repetitiveness is noticed, it is easy to see that the coherence and the plausibility of the plot do not matter at all for Fellini’s message. During the height of the fanatic chase of the false Marian apparition, one old woman says, “It doesn’t matter if they truly saw the Virgin Mary. […] He who looks for God will find him anywhere”. In the same manner, it doesn’t matter whether each episode has happened in reality or only in Marcello’s subconscious. It does not matter whether the characters are unaware of Marcello’s attempts to reach out to them, or purposefully ignore them. It does not matter whether they know that their quest for meaning is doomed to failure from the very start. All that matters is that the characters on the screen, real or imaginary, share Marcello’s feeling of misplacement, his bitterness and resignation, and that they all attempt and fail to escape from this condition: some turn to the sacred, others to the profane; some turns to the light of unattainable ideals, other to the darkness of sinful pleasures. Marcello, Maddalena, Sylvia, and Steiner all are deceiving themselves, for they cannot face the meaninglessness of their existences.
Fellini makes an extensive use of dichotomies: life and death, light and darkness, up and down, sacred and profane. However, what we realise through the film is that what side the characters choose is irrelevant: each choice leaves Marcello’s life fundamentally unchanged. In a way, Fellini has created his own cinematographic version of the Pernose stairs, imprisoning Marcello in an endless succession of ascensions and descents.
Despite its pervasive cynicism, La Dolce Vita is not intended to be a verisimilar depiction of the Italian society in the early 60s, nor it is in itself an attack on any ideology. It is an allegorical representation of the paradoxical condition in which every person finds himself, caught between the need to overcome his loneliness and the systematic failure of any attempt to communicate with other people. It is precisely because La Dolce Vita succeeded in depicting this existential paradox to which any human experience, regardless of its historical and social determinants, can be related to that it is a timeless film; the fact that it does so through an engaging, unpredictable and well-performed story-line is what makes it a great film.