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La dolce vita
During a vintage interview included on this essential Blu-Ray release of La Dolce Vita from Criterion, director Federico Fellini confesses that he hates talking about his own work in detail, because he thinks the filmmaker should be the last person to talk about their creation. Once the work is out there, he believes that it belongs to the audience from that point on. "I can talk about my intentions", he muses, "But intentions can be subverted, so what's the point?"
Even though Fellini doesn't even mention La Dolce Vita during the interview, the inclusion of these comments specifically in the Blu-Ray for this film couldn't be more appropriate. Even though I believe Fellini's intentions while making the film to be quite clear, La Dolce Vita nevertheless is kind of a cinematic Rorschach test, the understanding and appreciation of which depends so much more on the viewer's personality and current life experiences than the film's content itself.
For all technical intents and purposes, La Dolce Vita stays the same, but we change, and our reaction to it changes along with us. In our 20s, we might look up to Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), the carefree, self-centered, womanizing reporter who beds many beautiful women while keeping one firmly under his thumb, as a source of envy while we romanticize Fellini's so-called rose-colored vision of 1960's Rome.
In our 30s, we might be annoyed at Marcello's self-destructive antics and question why we were ever meant to care even a little bit about such shallow characters as we notice more and more cracks beneath this decadent world's façade.
In our 40s, Marcello might suddenly turn into a tragic figure in front of our very eyes, a somber representation of how a life full of narcissism can lead to a pointless existence without any meaning. Eventually, the enigmatic final scene we perhaps once found to be whimsical and quirky becomes a sobering depiction of a point of no return.
Even Roger Ebert, who named La Dolce Vita his favorite film a number of times during his career, professes that he had a different reaction to it every time he watched it. Regardless of how one personally feels about La Dolce Vita, it's hard not to acknowledge the power of any work of art that can effortlessly shape shift depending on the individual.
When I first watched La Dolce Vita about ten years ago, the unfair romanticizing of the film cemented through four decades of popular culture misled me. After all, almost all of the famous imagery related to it focuses on the "romantic" shots and locations without attempting to give much of an insight into the characters. Even general audiences who are not familiar with the film itself can recognize the iconic image of the voluptuous bombshell Anita Ekberg bathing in the Trevi Fountain.
At the time, I didn't get the film's appeal, because I was looking for the supposed glorification of the characters' hedonism and decadence, not a brutally scathing indictment of it. I thought it to be an episodic and shallow experience, beautiful and mesmerizing, yet without much depth or merit. The second time around, I got rid of the mental baggage that I carried around about La Dolce Vita and decided to jump in with as little prejudice as I possibly could muster.
What I found this time around was a masterpiece that honestly yet fearlessly satirized and criticized the shallowness of the decadent lifestyles of the rich, as well as the spiritual futility of our celebrity-obsessed culture. In fact, La Dolce Vita predicted the eventual depth of depravity of celebrity journalism the way Network foresaw the crumbling of credible and objective news broadcasting after news divisions were expected to rake in high ratings and profit.
Even the most supposedly romantic scenes in La Dolce Vita carry a hefty amount of cynicism. After Marcello spends the night trying unsuccessfully to bed the movie star played by Anita Ekberg, the paparazzi, a word created by this film I might add, surround her and her husband, practically directing their actions, goading them to fight. At this point, they become nothing more than playthings for the public and lose all of their humanity.
Their privacy is meaningless, they are puppets to be manipulated by the public. Five decades later, millions get access to stolen naked photos of a hundred movie stars and the only response most of the general public can think to give to this gross invasion of privacy is "If you don't want people to see you naked, don't take naked pictures of yourself". It doesn't look like we've matured much since 1960.
In many ways La Dolce Vita is an episodic experience, following Marcello as he hops from one decadent party to another during the course of a single week. The story, as little as there could be one, lacks a conventional structure, mainly because we're dealing with a protagonist who also lacks structure in his life. What starts off as a seemingly disconnected series of vignettes about a bunch of shallow people gradually turns into a deft character study about a man whose narcissism consumes him until he's left without a personality, at least not one that's remotely tolerable.
He claims to have aspirations to become a "legitimate" writer and looks down at the gossip rags he's been relegated to write for. Yet we barely ever see him writing, or even working for that matter. During the one scene he sits in front of a typewriter, he's too distracted by the cute young waitress to get any serious work done.
He thinks he's a free spirit and believes any man who settles down into a predictable family life is a worthless worm, yet he desperately clings onto his co-dependent and suicidal fiancée Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), perhaps because she's the last person in his life who showcases at least some passion and compassion.
During a gorgeous sequence where a media circus surround the site of a so-called miracle, where two children claim to have direct contact with Mother Mary, Emma is the only one who empathizes with or even notices the sadness of a poor woman praying to Mother Mary to heal her sick child.
As we jump from one segment to another, Fellini gradually builds on Marcello's emotional isolation and the eventual depths of his hedonism. By the time we get to the final party where Marcello drowns a woman in feathers and literally rides her like a pony, we finally realize that we're in the middle of a freak show and that everything's been leading to this point.
When a new Blu-Ray transfer of a renowned masterpiece is released from the leaders of home video excellence known as The Criterion Collection, it usually means it's time to throw away any previous releases of that title, and La Dolce Vita is not an exception to that rule. In short, any other previous copies you own of La Dolce Vita are now glorified coasters. The 1080p transfer from the meticulous 4K restoration performed in 2010 looks clean, crisp and gorgeous with a healthy amount of grain inherent in the source material. I don't know if La Dolce Vita ever looked so beautiful.
Every hour or so I had to remind myself that I was listening to La Dolce Vita through a lossless LPCM 1.0 mono track. The mono presentation has so much clarity, depth and presence that even though every sound comes out of the center speaker, it's more than enough to envelop the audience in the film's universe. This is as perfect of a mono transfer as one can get.
Visual Essay by Filmmaker :: kogonada (Yes, that's the full official name, complete with the double colon): The first extra on the disc is also the most pointless. It's an 8-minute visual essay about the final frame of La Dolce Vita compared to similar final shots of French New Wave films of the same era. The essay's self-centered video art aesthetics betray any of its informational value. The monotone narration is sleep-inducing, even for such a short piece.
Interview With Federico Fellini: This aforementioned 30-minute interview conducted in 1965 is the most valuable extra on the disc, even though it's not specifically about La Dolce Vita. Speaking outdoors in a picnic setting, Fellini openly talks about his approach to filmmaking and even offers a glowing review of Hitchcock's The Birds.
Interview With Lina Wertmuller: Wertmuller, who was Fellini's assistant director on La Dolce Vita, who also later became a successful director herself, gives insight into Fellini's personal life during this brief 7-minute interview.
Interview With David Forgacs: In this short piece, scholar Forgacs informs the audience about the social circumstances surrounding Italy during the film's timeframe. Essential viewing to get even more perspective about the upper class in 1960s Italy.
Interview With Journalist Antonello Sarno: A dry yet informative interview about Fellini's visual style.
Audio Interview Marcello Mastroianni: An audio piece from Mastroianni taken from a 60s interview. Not really essential and can be easily skipped.
We also get a Slideshow of La Dolce Vita-inspired artwork.
Just like The Great Gatsby and even the recent The Wolf of Wall Street, it's very easy to misunderstand La Dolce Vita's indictment of a narcissistic and hedonistic culture as a celebration of said culture. It's a timeless masterpiece that will ironically become more relevant as it gets older.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com