10 January 2010

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part Nine: La Dolce Vita)

Behold the empty man, Marcello Rubini. Handsome, sophisticated intelligent in an easy unaffected way. But with no depth at all. Let's be thankful for that. Because it is through him, the protagonist of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) that we see a wonderful episodic tale of Rome circa 1960.

We follow the adventures of this journalist and would be novelist, mostly in the wee hours of the night as he cavorts about with the beautiful, the famous and the rich. These adventures comprise nearly three hours in cinematic time. Director Federico Fellini could have cut an hour and had a nice tidy film that would have been beloved. Instead he left all stories in and let them all play out and so created a masterpiece.

We can enjoy the spectacle of La Dolce Vita because it is unencumbered by a deep and philosophical protagonist. Marcello Mastrioni plays Rubini as the ultimate nihilist. He has no strong moral center and apparently no core beliefs. He doesn't even qualify as a hedonist for he can't even manage to indulge copiously. There's a certain current day teenage girl ethos to Rubini. He's like whatever.

Sure he aspires to be a serious author, so long as actual work is not required. Meanwhile he's satisfied with collecting the snippets of life, provided they relate to the glitterati. Around him is a wolf pack of photographers, especially a chap named Paparazzo (the character who gave his name to the paparazzi). They are more obvious, intrusive leeches. Their cameras are as evident and obnoxious as Rubini's pen is hidden. They also lack his many accoutrements, such as sophisticated style.

Whether in a nightclub, a party among the upper crust or in a helicopter (Jesus statue in tow). Rubini has access to the most beautiful women in Rome. Some he falls for, some fall for him. But it's more like the old song:

There are those who can leave love or take it
Love to them is just what they make it There are those who can leave love or take it
I wish that I were the same
But love is my fav'rite game

I fall in love too easily
I fall in love too fast
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last

My heart should be well-schooled
'Cause I've been burned in the past
And still I fall in love too easily
I fall in love too fast

This is a wonderful plot convenience that Fellini has provided. Rubini's susceptibility to women's charms coupled with there's to his, allows the likes of Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee and Magali Noel to dance across screen.

There is also within La Dolce Vita such mysteries as the character of Steiner (Alain Curry). A wealthy sophisticate with a brain to match his bankbook and -- of all things -- a perfectly happy nuclear family. If you've not seen the film I shouldn't here reveal his fate, but suffice to say it is the anchor of La Dolce Vita's many light moments. Odd that Rubini makes the point on a couple of occasions that he and Steiner are good friends thought they rarely see one another. There's something especially piquant about this.

La Dolce Vita is like the grandest dessert tray you've ever seen. Marcello is our waiter. We don't want his life story. Just bring us the treats, maybe tell us a little about everything. This he does.

We follow Rubini, as one would a guide, albeit a handsome one.

La Dolce Vita lacks the madness of Fellini's 8 1/2, the clarity of Nights of Cabiria, or the inventiveness of Amarcord. But like these other great films it serves strong visual fare in wonderful abundance. Here is the work of a director fully confident in his story, his characters and his camera. To some the film goes on too long. These are people who leave a party early, forgetting that sleep can be had on other nights. This party, this movie, is an occasion to savor, not cut short. That's why Marcello is a perfect host. Asking little of us but to enjoy the festivities, we needn't indulge in any great philosophical dialogues. This night, this movie is for other senses.

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