La Dolce Vita: Modern by Design

Introduction

In this paper I will explore how with La Dolce Vita1, Federico Fellini created both a modern film and a cinematic representation of a modern city. I will argue that he achieved this by conforming to and by subverting certain traditional cinematic motifs and concepts, including the classical city/country opposition. It was a good choice, one that was later confirmed, although in another context, by Paul Virilio’s observation, “If the metropolis is still a place…it no longer has anything to do with the classical oppositions of city/country nor centre/periphery.”2 In fact, I hope to show that it is exactly Fellini’s rejection of this kind of dialectic that helps explain how this nearly 50-year-old film continues to resonate with relevance.

This paper is composed in two short parts. In the first, I will discuss the nature of modernity in the film. Here, I will look (glance at, really, considering the time and space allowed) at Fellini’s approach to storytelling as well as the production methods he used to tell his story.

We’ll examine both Fellini’s use of unexpected, even forbidden, images to shock his audience, and the episodic narrative devices he used to hold together a film that famously has no center. In the second part, I will attempt to show how Fellini affirms the modernity of his film through his creation of Marcello Rubini, his thoroughly modern protagonist. For insights into this personality, I rely on insights provided by Walter Benjamin’s notion of the Flâneur, as well as Georg Simmel’s “blasé individual.”

1 Modern by Design
Each epoch not only dreams the next, but also, in dreaming, strives toward the moment of waking.
Walter Benjamin, Reflections, “Paris Capital of the 19th Century”

La Dolce Vita1 begins with one of the most famous opening sequences in mid-20th century cinema: Suddenly it appears: A helicopter conveying a monumental statue of Jesus. The arms of Christ are outstretched as if in flight, but whether He’s ascending, descending, or just passing through, is not immediately revealed. In the background are mountains and below the countryside, while coming quickly into view are the ruins of the San Felice aqueducts.

In front of these ancient monuments is an empty soccer field and further along a complex of post-war apartment buildings. Time and space compress; speed is of the essence. A second helicopter follows this spectacle. Inside are the journalist Marcello Rubini and the photographer Paparazzo. They are working, covering this story, but we never learn what exactly is the story.

Perhaps in this new, media-saturated world, the reporting of a story is the story itself. One begins to suspect this is the case, as this extraordinary sight is never referred to in the movie again.

At first glance it appears we are presented with typical oppositions: religious and secular. The traditional and the modern. The glory that was Rome versus banal contemporary European efficiency. Modern, yes. Opposed, no. There’s no doubt we’re entering a modern city—modernity represented by the hard white surfaces and sharp right angles of new apartment construction. Later in the film there will be scenes where antiquities, palazzos and ruins set the stage, but these structures and environments are used as backdrops and sets. (Literally backdrops and sets, as many of the film’s locations, including the famous Via Veneto, were studio recreations,)

From the onset we see that things are not really connected. Children race after the helicopter while women in bikinis stop sunning themselves to observe this extraordinary sight. However, it’s apparent the children don’t belong to these women. Marcello and Paparazzo famously flirt with the women from an impossible height. What are we to make of this wondrous image? The very next scene drops us, late at night, in a fashionable nightclub. There before we see him, we hear the high-pitched shriek of a Siamese dancer, performing for high society. What are we do make of this curious juxtaposition?

According to the scholar Peter Bondanella, Fellini wanted to create a city that had been “Cut adrift from traditional values and symbols, especially those of Christianity, a world bereft of a dominant cultural center.” 3

If one ignores for a moment this potentially irreligious use of the image of Jesus (certainly more scandalous in 1960 than today), we may assume that Fellini’s opening sequences adhere to overly familiar cinematic conventions. But I’d argue, if it were his intent, as Bondanella suggests, to use these schematic differences to show a city adrift, the film would have lost its capacity to shock a long time ago.4 No, I suggest a much stronger effect is at work—not a city that has merely lost its mooring, but a city and a people severed from their roots. A city lost in time and space—to borrow Bondanella’s nautical metaphor, an urban Flying Dutchman.

believe this story Fellini is telling is one of deracination, which is to say, this film defines a modernity from which there’s no possibility of return or redemption, a la Murnau’s Sunrise. (We’ll see that Marcello is no prodigal son, when we revisit this notion of return in the second part of this paper.)

No return. No redemption. This may appear a rather harsh judgment when one considers the film’s enormous critical and financial success. But for all its star power, glamour and notoriety, La Dolce Vita is not a happy film…. although it’s always entertaining. Then again, no one to my mind has ever equated modernity with happiness. The film’s melancholia may be what marks it as an authentically modern, and even, an embryonic post-modern work. (For the sake of consistency, I will continue to refer to modern and modernity throughout this piece.)

So, while the film’s opening scene follows a familiar route from the country to the suburbs and then into the heart—in this case, straight to St. Peter’s, the spiritual heart—of the city, the passage is not strictly analogous to the opening of the film Berlin, Symphony of a Great City. And Fellini would not have us take it, or, I believe, anything else in the film. too literally.

And, as we’ll see, not every image tells a story. Sometimes an image is simply an image. Which is why we do not experience in La Dolce Vita the gradual apprehension of significance that we experienced in Ruttmann’s film. Instead, we must settle simply for the shock provided by the rapid and unsettling juxtaposition of unexpected images.

By shock, I am, of course, referring to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the sensation of over-stimulation that is a defining fact of modern life. According to Benjamin, one experiences shock when exposed to new technologies, as well as from one’s contact with the “metropolitan masses.” Shock can be triggered by a multiplicity of forms including advertising, movies, streetlights, window displays, and traffic. Which is to say, that overstimulation is a condition of life in the modern city and as such people must be on their guard against it. Although from my reading of this “condition” there doesn’t seem to be a real defense from it.

In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin brings the notion of shock to our experience of film: “The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which, like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind.”

Unfortunately, the rapid episodic pace of La Dolce Vita doesn’t allow for this presence of mind to develop, anymore than turning from one street or boulevard into another offers the city dweller a moment’s respite. Shock can be seen as Fellini’s method.

La Dolce Vita is a film built on a continuous series of unexpected images and episodes that produce one shock after another. The experience of these episodes may be compared to the perpetual visual stimulations endured by Benjamin’s urban dweller. The difference here, of course, is that Fellini’s production of shock is in the service of art, not commerce. He employs his visual images much like the symbolist poets, such as Charles Baudelaire, and later the surrealists, used language, to compel our attention.

This poetic approach to storytelling required a modern cinematic style. Fellini’s previous work, though always shaped by his own “vision,” largely conformed to neo-Realist conventions, such as concern with the fate of the poor. In La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s takes a significant departure. This is a film about embedded elites and newly affluent Romans “enjoying” the fruits of their economic “miracle.”

This shift in perspective, as well the innovative storytelling technique Fellini employed, also required a more contemporary mode of cinematic expression. The conventional cinematic narrative wouldn’t do here. Fellini found his inspiration and his artist license in Picasso’s cubist period. (A watershed event in modernist painting.) He described his new approach by saying “Let’s invent episodes and not worry for now about the logic of the narrative.”6

Fellini understood that a modern story, to be authentically modern, must be told in a modern way. He achieved this by eschewing typical narrative devices and plotting, in effect, creating a film made up of somewhat disconnected but ultimately connectable episodes. This episodic approach enabled Fellini to put chance and contingency in play in a way that is experienced more often in life than seen in film. And in keeping with his own Neo-Realist roots by not confusing truth with reality, he managed to achieve both. To borrow from the American poet, Emily Dickinson, Fellini “tells all the truth/but tells it slant.”7

2 Melancholy Marcello

Lost in this mean world, jostled by the crowd, I am like a weary man whose eye, looking backwards, into the depth of the years, sees nothing but disillusion and bitterness, and before him nothing but a tempest which contains nothing new, neither instruction nor pain.
Walter Benjamin quoting from Baudelaire’s diary in Illuminations
“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”

As we saw above, La Dolce Vita may have one of the most ironic names in film. Its characters are not happy. Life is not sweet. The film does not have a happy ending. The irony is best appreciated in the character of Marcello Rubini.
To all appearances Marcello is a success. Strikingly handsome, he has a beautiful, if simple, girlfriend and a magnificent aristocratic lover. He drives a sports car, dresses beautifully and enjoys access to the most fabulous places in Rome. In today’s marketing parlance, we can capture Marcello’s essence by saying, “Woman want him, and men want to be him.” He is a thoroughly modern man, which is to say, in this context, detached to the point of isolation.
He is in Rome but not of Rome. He is a journalist but writing for tabloid papers and celebrity magazines. He is a lover who we suspect is incapable of love.

To try to understand him in the context of the modern city, I’ll help myself to a little of Benjamin’s notion of the Flâneur, but with this disclaimer, as Benjamin himself noted:
Paris created the type of the Flâneur. What is remarkable is that it wasn’t Rome. And the reason? Does not dreaming itself take the high road in Rome? And isn’t that city too full of temples, enclosed squares, national shrines, to be able to enter tout entière—with every cobblestone, every shop sign, every step, and every gateway—into the passerby’s dream?8

I also pursue this line with more than a little reluctance, as Benjamin’s Flâneur is a difficult and often contradictory character. However, when all’s said and done, I believe the role of Flâneur fits Marcello as if it was written for him. Especially when we define the Flâneur as: the man on the street, the man who moves with grace and style among the crowds, but who isn’t part of the crowd. What’s more, like the Flâneur, although Marcello stands out, he is no hero. Which is to say, he’ll bring no meaning, nor resolution to the film. In fact, for all his virility, this modern Flâneur, this professional observer, is impotent and will save no one, least of all himself.

To see how Marcello manages the stress of living in the modern city, we can also look to Geog Simmel who wrote, “The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli.”9 The individual response to these stimuli is the acquisition of a blasé outlook.

Marcello affects this attitude. He’s often blasé but rarely convincing. His beautiful face is too expressive; and too often it reveals the extent of his unhappiness, his pain and suffering.

I believe the notion of the “blasé individual” offers another way—one that is complementary to Benjamin’s Flâneur10—to understanding Marcello. For Simmel, modern life with its endless choices, ceaseless distractions and temptations can only be met with a blasé attitude. Life must be mediated. How we mediate is the question. One of Fellini’s most striking and reoccurring images is the sight of beautiful people wearing sunglasses at night, or while inside. This choice of mediation—sunglasses—is inspired. These fashion accessories not only conceal one’s glance, but they also hide one’s hurt (both literal, in the sense of Maddalena, and figurative in Marcello). What’s more, they soften the intense visual stimulation that constantly compels our attention. Fellini is aware of the eruption of these stimuli; he is resigned to its inevitability and offers as a response not higher consciousness but a pair of tinted glass lens.

Marcello’s blasé attitude is not only a defense mechanism, but also an appropriate posture for a man of his profession. Simmel points out that the essence of this attitude is “indifference toward the distinction between things. He goes on to suggest that ultimately everything is experienced as meaningless. This indifference is an occupational necessity for Marcello—he can’t get close to the things he exploits. That is, until he becomes reacquainted with his old friend Steiner. At this point, the film threatens to get a little sentimental, which is the antithesis of modernism. We learn that once Marcello had larger ambitions literary ambitions, which he has since given up. Through Steiner it appears that Marcello can once again look homeward and recall the promise and idealism of his youth. He gets weepy and gives in to his vulnerability. For a moment Fellini let’s us believe he may even find happiness—that this Flâneur will soon engage in and not simply observe life.

But, of course, it doesn’t happen. His friend, although a professional intellectual, can’t tell him how to live, but can only offer to help him find a good job. Not long after this meeting, in perhaps the most unexpected, and cruelest image in the film, we’ll see Steiner dead—a suicide who has also murdered his two children. Fellini pulls no punches; there’s no return to simpler, happier times.

The shock of Steiner’s suicide not only severs Marcello’s last bond to his past, but also erases the notion of return. (In a similar fashion, the episode with his father seemed more like an encounter with a ghost than a visit with a living man. The sequences had all the characteristics of a dream. Marcello can’t go home again.)
Benjamin, in discussing another observer of the scene, Charles Baudelaire, wrote, “The poet does not participate in the game. He stands in his corner, no happier than those who are playing. He too has been cheated out of his experience—a modern man.”
So it is with Marcello, a kind of poet, in that he is a creator of images and feelings and deals in ephemera. At the film’s end a kind of transformation occurs—perhaps a modern treatment of the Flâneur. In this guise, Marcello is not only in the crowd, but he also appears at its center, and yet paradoxically, he remains the outsider. The proximity is illusory. He became a publicist; a man whose profession is to tell lies to the public for money.11

SERNAS
—If instead of 250,000 lire, I gave you 300,000 lira a month, what would you write about me?
MARCELLO, with a drunken smile:
—That you’re Marlon Brando.
SERNAS, smiling
—And if I gave you 400,000?
MARCELLO
—John Barrymore.
SERNAS
…And a million?
MARCELLO laughs contemptuously and rubs his fingers
—Give me the million first, and I’ll tell you.

Throughout the film, the makers of media, the image-makers, appear for what they are: hustlers, superficial and parasitic. While their subjects appear equally superficial—not as glamorous beings but as commodities, whose images are sold like the proverbial soap flakes—it is Marcello et al who are judged contemptible. Contemptible but necessary and everyone, the aristocrat, the bourgeoisie and even working classes are resigned to their presence. They exist in society but at its edge, if you will, a race of Flâneurs. With my apologies to Gertrude Stein, in the modern city, the only there, there, is on either side of the camera.

Hence the appropriateness of the episode as an organizing principle: Stories unfold in sequences. Marcello lives episodically. Media appears and is consumed episodically. Click. Click. Click.
One curious aspect of this film is how little we see of the consumers of media. Instead, we find ourselves either among the makers of media or among their putative subjects. Where ordinary people do appear in the film, it is as witnesses to events that happen to cross their paths, as in the case with Steiner’s wife (who wonders if the paparazzi mistake her for a celebrity), or as participants in a spectacle, news of which originally spread by word of mouth, as in the scenes related to the “field of the miracle.” When people do pose for the camera, they are conscious of their obligation to perform and so behave accordingly. Both the peasants (in the “Miracle” episode) and the professional, Robert (Sylvia’s fiancé) play their parts, naturally. It seems the modern city is, in the end, the media city.

Conclusion
Marxists and others on the left saw La Dolce Vita as an attack on bourgeois corruption and aristocratic decadence. Admirers, like these, who shared this vision of the modern world lauded the film. On the other hand, the Catholic Church as well as moralists on the right were insulted by a film they judged as anti-religious and even pornographic. Others without a political filter to shape their response, hailed it as a cinematic masterpiece, an original piece of modern filmmaking.

As a modern work of art, the film had no obligation to either anger some or seek praise from others. Where it fits ideologically, is strictly in the modernist camp. Which is to say, it exists to repudiate the past and previous aesthetic and political concerns.

I believe, as beautifully crafted and framed as La Dolce Vita is, it is also, in the end, simply a straightforward and unapologetic assertion that contemporary life must proceed on its own terms, relying on neither the wisdom of the ages nor the comfort of the familiar. The modern city, which is one of the stars of this film, is, as we’ve seen, largely a fabrication. Fellini’s Rome is not Rome at all. Perhaps, one can argue, that Fellini’s Rome stands in for any modern City. And, in this way offers a vision-to-come of the post-modern City on a Hill— not a city of light but one of continual shocks and collisions.

Notes

  1. La Dolce Vita, Dir. Federico Fellini, Screenplay by Federico Fellini, Pinelli, Flaiano and Brunello Fondi, Director of photography Otello Martelli. Music by Nino Rota, shot in 1959/ released in 1960
  2. Virilio, Paul, “The Overexposed City,” 1984
  3. Bondanella, Peter,” Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita,” International Media Films 2005
  4. Both in the literal sense and in the Benjaminean sense of the word. See Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Shocken Books, New York, 1968.
  5. Bondanella, Peter, “Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita,” International Media Films 2005
  6. Fellini, Federico, La Dolce Vita, Ballantine Books, 1961
  7. Dickinson, Emily, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”
    Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth’s superb surprise
    As Lightening to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind—
  8. Benjamin, Walter, The Arcade Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London England, 1999
  9. Simmel, Georg, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” 1903
  10. Benjamin, Walter, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Shocken Books, New York, 1968
  11. Fellini, Federico, La Dolce Vita, Ballantine Books, 1961