Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, one of the most breathtaking visual assaults on the parables and problems of living the good life, comes jam-packed with readily accessible metaphors for the price of the material comfort most of us seem to seek.
Shot in 1959 on the Via Veneto, the Roman street of clubs, sidewalk cafes and the ongoing parade of the night, La Dolce Vita can be thought of as both a cautionary tale and a kitschy tribute to the sweet life of fading artistocrats.
In many circles, the film has also been seen as a parable, complete with numerical indicators (the seven deadly sins, the seven hills of Rome as well as seven nights and seven dawns). Whichever way you look at it, the story is really an allegory, a cautionary tale of a man without a center. The hero, such as he is, works as a gossip columnist, chronicling the sweet life of second rate movie stars, aging playboys and women of commerce. Marcello constantly dreams of someday doing something good and redeeming, but is trapped in a life of empty nights and lonely dawns.
The narrative leaps from one visual extravaganza to another, following Marcelo as he chases down stories and women. After one too many mornings, we begin to understand the film’s structure: A series of nights and dawns, descents and ascents. Marcello goes down into subterranean nightclubs, hospital parking lots, the hooker’s hovel and an ancient crypt. He ascends St. Peter’s dome, climbs to a choir loft, and to the high-rise apartment of Steiner (Alain Curry), the intellectual who is his hero.
One of the most telling sequences involves two sequences that essentially mirror each other. The famous opening scene, as a statue of Christ is carried above Rome by a helicopter, is matched with the closing, in which fishermen on the beach find a sea monster in their nets. Two Christ symbols: the statue ‘beautiful’ but false and the fish ‘ugly’ but real. If the opening and closing scenes are symmetrical, so are many others, matching the sacred and profane and casting doubts on both.
The film is something of a doppleganger. Showing two sides of an intrinsically unsolvable problem, it asks us to choose between youth and the pragmatic. Whichever path we take, the obstacles will be waiting. What will we do with them?