La Dolce Vita, one of Fellini’s most popular and accessible works, isn’t really about much. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is a journalist and man-about-town who wanders endlessly across Rome from one decadent party to the next, followed by his loyal troop of paparazzi. Along the way, he wades through the Trevi Fountain at night with the beautiful starlet, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), and later covers a woman in feathers so she looks like a chicken. Yeah.
Although the film follows a number of characters from Marcello’s perspective, Fellini has little interest in narrative arcs that allow to them gleam any valuable life experience from their endeavours. La Dolce Vita’s running time stretches to three hours but there’s little room for character development. The films just glides from party to party, presenting a series of vignettes of languid aesthetes. Their hedonism is coldly compelling. As Marcello’s girlfriends puts it, ‘at least they do things with a certain elegance’.
He resists making any overt moral judgements, but Fellini hints at the unfulfilling nature of his characters’ lives. Throughout there is an emphasis on performance. Sylvia sashays from her private jet to her adoring photographers, only to repeat the action so they can get a better picture. This kind of faking it for the cameras occurs elsewhere, and often. This life might be sweet, but it’s not real. When Marcello and his father visit a nightclub and watch a performance by a tragic clown who bumbles from one calamity to another, for the audience’s pleasure, the message is clear.
Towards the end of the film, a tragedy occurs that is all the more surprising because it comes out of nowhere. What’s interesting is that Fellini largely ignores the aftermath of the event. Instead, he focuses on paparazzi swarming around the family member left behind as police break the news. In an earlier and unrelated scene, one photographer asks Sylvia, the famous actress, ‘Do you think Italian Neorealism is dead or alive?’. A self-reflexive joke that got a (self-satisfied) laugh from last night’s audience, the line now suggests how everything becomes a commodity in the end, even a person’s life.
Surprisingly watchable for its lack of any narrative development, La Dolce Vita is haunting for its cold observational distance. It is a subtle and poignant exploration of life lived elegantly wasted. It’s definitely worth a viewing. Just maybe not at the BFI Southbank, unless you want to get tutted at for breathing.