Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger jumped into a fountain once, but it was because he needed a few quarters to continue his game of Mortal Kombat. The mall rent-a-cops were not pleased.
"You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You are mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, earth, home."—Marcello Rubini
Federico Fellini has cachet among modern cinéastes, and La Dolce Vita is among his most celebrated works. For those who haven't seen it (and, until very recently, I was among them), the film has taken on a nearly mythic reputation of subversive themes, prescient modernity, and classic cinematic imagery. Those who have seen it, and are therefore free from its aura of mystique, endlessly debate whether Fellini's film is the definitive postmodern masterpiece or a highly overrated siege of pretension.
Unfortunately, I'm not going to solve that debate after one viewing. My gut instinct is that La Dolce Vita is overrated, and it certainly is not a self-evident masterpiece. Yet I also know that true art does not always present itself easily, and that the perspective of time and experience ultimately judge a work. Though I'm dissatisfied with it now, the film has enough merit to support the "postmodern masterpiece" argument.
Facts of the Case
Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni, 8 1/2) is an entertainment journalist with questionable detachment and even more questionable scruples. He prowls the dens of Rome's rich and famous, looking for something to write or someone to bed. He insinuates himself into party after party, observing a parade of gauche behavior, depravity, and selfishness.
If he had his way, Marcello would end up with the beautiful, bored, and insanely rich Maddalena (Anouk Aimee, 8 1/2). Marcello wants her wealth, she is apathetic either way—and neither has the gumption to break out of the orbits that society has set for them. Of course, Marcello's lackadaisical pursuit of Maddalena (not to mention any other dame who will listen to his halfhearted come-ons) irks his live-in girlfriend, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux, The Story of the Count of Monte Cristo). "Live-in girlfriend" is something of a misnomer; Marcello hardly graces his home, staying out all night and chasing news stories during the day. Nonetheless, Emma is fanatically devoted to him and desperately wants him to love her the same way.
All women vanish from Marcello's mind when Sylvia (Anita Ekberg, Killer Nun) lands in Rome. She is an American actress with a voluptuous body, a dazzling smile, a waterfall of golden hair; she leaves a swath of glittering flashbulbs in her wake.
Emma, Maddalena, Sylvia…the endless cycle of skirt chasing wears on. It seems the only person in the world capable of truly reaching Marcello is an older journalist friend, Steiner (Alain Cuny, Camille Claudel). Will Marcello be able to hear what Steiner is trying to tell him? Or will Marcello's life be spent in pursuit of the next woman, chasing a halfhearted dream of a career in literature?
If you've already made up your mind about La Dolce Vita, chances are you're more interested in what the two-disc collector's edition from Koch Lorber brings to the table. So we'll start with details and get to the film in a few moments.
Koch Lorber has paid a lot of attention to La Dolce Vita, remastering the sound and video, providing liner notes, and including a second disc of features. The effort is noteworthy, even if the results are mixed.
Fellini is not noted for his exquisite aural abilities. In fact, the most persistent criticism of Fellini is the poor sonic effort he delivers. Fellini does all of his sound work in postproduction, dubbing voices and rendering effects in the studios. Fellini doesn't really care if the lips match the voice, or even if actors' lips are moving while they are "talking." Sound effects give the barest orientation to what is happening onscreen, with large stretches of quiet in the soundstage. La Dolce Vita is no exception. When the film opened (and the film has a hell of an opening, which deepens the insult) I wasted time fiddling with my receiver because I thought the audio wasn't coming through. There were two helicopters bearing down on me, and I wasn't hearing anything. Finally, the faint whir of helicopter blades trickled through the speakers, growing louder on an arc completely independent of the path the helicopters were taking. I wish I could say that the situation improved, but the audio never precisely jibed with what was happening onscreen. Even the film's most famous scene, with Anita Ekberg prancing around in the Fountain of Trevi, is marred by strangely echoing water sounds that don't match the dynamics of the water in the fountain. Mistiming in the dubs is the clearest giveaway, but audio miscues are only as far away as the next scene.
Given this sad state of affairs, Koch Lorber's remixing of the mono audio track into stereo and 5.1 surround is questionable. The original mono track is neither rich nor detailed enough to support 5.1 sound; I found the track antiseptic, oddly stretched, and empty in the middle. The stereo track is an improvement, although it didn't sound right either. In the end, the original 2.0 mono track wins the day, feeling more cohesive and sounding most clear. In all three tracks it was difficult to hear some of the spoken lines, particularly when Robert is speaking to Sylvia in the outdoor club. I still have no idea what he says to her after almost ten replays.
Though I don't embrace the audio remixes, Koch Lorber's sound restoration effort gets top marks. One of the handiest special features on the second disc is a side-by-side video comparison and a demo of the sound restoration, an extra that puts the studio's money where its mouth is. (I wish more studios would provide such demos, and I applaud Koch Lorber for doing so.) The original soundtrack was peppered with pops, harsh sibilants, and background hiss. All three of the new soundtracks are free from hiss and pops, and the sibilance has been reduced.
While Fellini is no audiophile, his visual flair is highly praised. Once again the technical comparison extra comes to the rescue, confirming my initial appraisal of the video restoration. Koch Lorber's new transfer is pleasing overall, but brings with it good and bad. The video is almost totally free of grain, dirt, scratches, specks, smudges, or other physical defects. Obsessive cleanup gives us a smooth and stable image. I personally feel that a restoration can go too far, taking away a film's living essence along with the dirt. The La Dolce Vita transfer has nudged just over that line. The image is undeniably smooth, to the point where some scenes feel plastic, like an airbrushed Maxim centerfold. Along with this smoothness comes truncated contrast. La Dolce Vita's former dramatic blacks and stark whites have been supplanted with an overall duskiness, neither completely white nor completely dark. I noticed it while watching the film, but the restoration demo makes it even clearer: Anita's luminous alabaster skin has been brought down a shade or two, while Marcello's jet-black tuxedo is now a dark shade of soot. Where he was reaching out to touch gossamer locks of ethereal hair, he now reaches for a relatively earthbound coiffure. Of course, the demo makes equally clear that the image no longer trembles, and scratches and dust no longer threaten the sanctity of the image. It is a toss-up. While I'm pointing out visual flaws, I may as well note that the digital restoration process has brought with it trace amounts of edge enhancement, periodic digital noise reduction (which plays strange tricks on those who see it), and very slight bouts of moiré that are entirely absent from the original print. These are widespread side effects of digital restoration, and they are tastefully constrained in this case. The sum effect is that La Dolce Vita is duskier, smoother, contains less contrast, and is more stable.
Completing the technical trifecta, Koch Lorber again gets a standing ovation for their delivery of extras, even if a few of them don't impress as much as others. Studios cannot predict in advance which extras will land big and which will not; the important thing is that they deliver extras.
Of the "introductory" extras, which include Dennis Bartok's liner notes, Alexander Payne's introduction, and Richard Schickel's commentary, Bartok's liner notes do the best job of establishing the film and describing why La Dolce Vita made such an impact. His succinct prose gets to the heart of the film and its philosophical and political ramifications. Payne's introduction is a curious prelude, rendered in a highly stylized blend of colored gels, quick cuts, zoom effects, and other energetic techniques. Payne vaguely describes the film using the word "indelible" and other such adjectives that you don't usually hear people say out loud, and which do little to convey what the film is about or what we should look for while watching it. I'm most disappointed in Schickel's commentary. There are frequent gaps, which create a disorienting cycle of listening to the film for a few seconds, then listening to a sound byte about the film. He repeats the same basic points over and over, and bases some of his arguments on factually incorrect information which is apparent after one viewing (for example, Marcello does bed more than one woman in the course of the film, and its actually an important point). But the biggest beef I have with the commentary is that Schickel gives a low-level explanation that does little more than recap what we're seeing with our own eyes. This is particularly maddening when some of the film's most memorable, noteworthy, or confusing moments arrive. At these times I was hoping to hear a richer take on the film than what I could get by watching it alone. This sounds unduly harsh; I would not want the task of taking a viewer through a three-hour-long, misunderstood classic.
Of the remaining extras, I personally enjoyed the restoration demo (because I'm the techie sort) and the "Remembering the Sweet Life" interviews with Ekberg and Mastroianni. The interviews are not mere promotional fluff, they are honest questions about the production. For example, Anita mentions the language barrier on set, and that La Dolce Vita actually harmed her movie career. (After watching Killer Nun, I'm inclined to agree with her.) Mastroianni waxes poetic about how the production of La Dolce Vita altered his life, and it doesn't sound hokey in the least.
"Cinecitta: The House of Fellini" isn't a must-see unless you are a die-hard Fellini fan, considering it is a four-minute walk-through of the antechamber into Fellini's studio. The "Fellini, Roma and Cinecitta" interview with Fellini is moderately more informative, albeit on the breezy side. We do get to see the man behind the film, though the film itself is scarcely mentioned. The collection of television shorts is indescribable, the sort of extra you will either enjoy immensely or fast-forward though. If Weird Al Yankovic turned dark and made television commercials, this might be the result. The "Facial Aerobics" skit was a hoot, while the Islamic beheading of a screaming woman was not.
Finally, we have the familiar standbys of biographies, filmographies, and photo gallery. The photo gallery is about what you'd expect, and the filmographies are of course no match for the Internet Movie Database, but the biographies are well-written and informative, better than most of their ilk.
Whew, that's a lot of extra material. If you're a "glass is half empty" sort you'll have already noticed the random and inconsistent nature of the extras. On the other hand, you can argue that this collector's edition gives us a solid introduction to the movie, real interviews with the stars, decent supporting material, and a cool technical demo of the restoration.
In a way, the discussion of the extras reflects the way I feel about La Dolce Vita. I've heard about Fellini's visionary style, and how he anticipated modern societal ills. I've seen the image of Anita Ekberg in the fountain, an undeniable archetype of feminine sensuality. I've read that La Dolce Vita marks a transition from Fellini's neorealist works to his abstract works, and one does not typically discuss neorealist transitions from lesser directors. It seems like there is a lot there, a buffet of certain excellence. But the actual experience left me less than satisfied.
In many ways, La Dolce Vita lives up to the hype. (By the way, readers moving beyond this point should expect spoilers.) The opening sequence is both an impressive visual stunt and a telling metaphor. Two helicopters fly past ruined aqueducts on their way to the Vatican. One carries a giant statue of Jesus Christ while the other carries tabloid photographers. The paparazzi take a detour to ogle a group of sunbathing women. This is where we first meet our protagonist Marcello, following a plaster Jesus but stopping to flirt along the way. The image is so powerful that it influenced the recent Good Bye Lenin!, which featured an extended CGI sequence of helicopters moving a statue of Lenin. The opening shot alone is worthy of discussion, contemplation, and homage. As the film unfolds, many such moments emerge.
One frequently voiced objection against La Dolce Vita is that it lacks structure. Nothing could be further from the truth, although the structure is not one we are used to seeing in film. A musical analogy would be the Dave Brubeck quartet's production of songs in 13/4 time; the structure is there, but it isn't readily detectable to listeners accustomed to 4/4 time. In this case, as Schickel tells us in the commentary, Fellini's structure is a cycle of eight vignettes concerning Marcello. These vignettes begin in the afternoon or evening and quickly progress to a late-night hot spot where Marcello meets someone important to him. At this point time slows down, and we dwell in the wee hours of the morning until some crisis presents itself. Marcello navigates the crisis, then his companions emerge into the light of a new day. These vignettes are remarkable for both their similarity and their subtle differences, but taken together they suggest the central theme of the film: Marcello is locked in a habitual cycle. Though he claims to be actively seeking a way out, he constantly avoids, refuses, does not (or cannot) hear actual ways to break out. His friend offers him a real job. His girlfriend offers him a life of devotion and peace. Finally, the young girl from the countryside beckons to him, offers to lead him to a relaxing life of bucolic splendor. Like a robot, Marcello follows the glitz and bright lights back to the emptiness of the party.
There is a lot to be said for Fellini's structure, and it has been said by people with more film criticism experience than I have. The parade of meaningful images, odd characterizations, and existential crises is too carefully integrated to ignore. La Dolce Vita is definitely intricate. But it is also one of the longest three-hour films I've seen. I put off watching The Seven Samurai for years because I feared its formidable three-hour-plus run time. Watching it, the time flowed like water. The Godfather's 175 minutes feels an hour shorter than La Dolce Vita. This film is interminable, winding its themes around the reel well past the point that we get them. No one said that films have to be comfortable, or even digestible, but it helps.
It may move slowly at times, but La Dolce Vita has its moments. Key among them is the very first, which is nothing but a black screen, white letters, and Nino Rota's score. With the exception of an excerpt of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the entire film is scored by Rota. Nino has produced an amazing number of stellar scores, including the aforementioned The Godfather, but this ranks among his best (snippets of this score were recently used in Lost in Translation). The opening song at first suggests refined gaiety, a classy-yet-hip composition that had me picturing fantastic parties full of jewel-studded socialites. But the composition quickly turned on a note to suggest a soul-consuming emptiness. It was disquieting, and set the tone for a film that essentially does the same thing: suggests glamour but reveals emptiness.
The acting from the leads is another bright spot. Marcello lives in his character, convincing us of his utter boredom and detached frustration with humanity. I don't know what more can be said about Anita Ekberg's luminous portrayal of the peak of femininity; if you are a heterosexual male and you don't long for her at all after beholding her flawless face, the conniving sway of her hips and tantalizing breasts, her cascade of golden hair…then you are the sort of man who is impervious to titles like "Miss Sweden" and I do not understand you. But the acting is more than cleavage and world-weary sighs. Fellini's characters dart their eyes around in telling, nearly savage displays of emotion. Just as quickly, the blithe glamour returns to mask their true feelings.
I've hinted at Fellini's prescience. The best example is the horde of paparazzi that feed off of human tragedy like gorging leeches. La Dolce Vita gives us some hard-hitting scenes, such as the murder of children or the trampling of infirm old men during the riotous sham of a Mother Mary sighting. The photographers are always there to record the sorrow of the survivors, the reporters always quick with a microphone to the face. Some of Fellini's situations seem impossibly grotesque, yet they have echoes in recent world events. The tabloid media has gown so nasty that stars cannot gain a pound or shed a tear without the world knowing. These ideas were new, or at least unspoken, until Fellini rendered them in celluloid.
The flip side of that coin is that Fellini may have gotten it right, but that doesn't excuse his pretension in giving us the message. La Dolce Vita is laden with pretension. The direction is often obscure when clarity would suffice. For every moment I thought "wow, cool image!" there was a moment I checked the clock and wondered why we needed to show Marcello chatting up another woman. Check The Charge at the beginning of this review, and you'll see what kinds of smooth talk he uses on the ladies.
Above all else, it is Marcello's lack of growth, his resigned existentialism, that tells us what La Dolce Vita wants to say. The existentialism in this film is one of experience: It has gone around the block, seen the horror, the horror, and no longer looks for things like love or redemption. Marcello is one of the paparazzi, but he always distances himself from them and rails against them. He is one of the night fiend party animals, but he holds himself to a higher academic standard. When among academics, Marcello proclaims less esoteric ambitions. When in the presence of love, Marcello seeks freedom; when in the presence of freedom, Marcello seeks love. It is a maddening conundrum: Does Marcello really want to change? Does he know what he wants? Is he simply too resigned, or too focused to see other choices? We have to understand Marcello, because he is the modern man, he is us.
La Dolce Vita is the kind of film that you could discuss until the wee hours of the morning for eight days straight and still find things to talk about. It is also the kind of film that doesn't readily absorb you or make itself approachable. As a night owl and a pessimist, I find truth in Fellini's tale of woe. But I also recognize that one viewing does not adequately prepare me to lucidly discuss the work.
This two-disc collector's edition takes a shotgun approach, which means it hits the target while missing it at the same time. There are clear benefits in sound quality, some changes for the better and some for the worse in video quality, and an impressive-looking slate of extras that sounds bigger than it really is. Nonetheless, we do get several quality interviews and takes on Fellini that round out our understanding of this film. All told it is a worthwhile title to have in your collection, particularly if you are fond of postmodern foreign films, existentialism, or The Great Gatsby.
Marcello is mandated by the court to pick one gal and stick with her for at least a week or two. For misdemeanor fountain-wading, Anita Ekberg must stay in chambers for further questioning.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Commentary by Film Critic and Historian Richard Schickel
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