Film, Venue

La Dolce Vita and the Beautiful Nightmare

‘When I first saw La Dolce Vita, I didn’t like it at all – too long, too meandering, too lacking in plot – but then again,’ I said, staring at a friend from across the table as she sipped on a pint and rolled her eyes, ‘I did spend all night thinking about it.’

She looked at me and smiled, ‘That’s usually your litmus test, isn’t it?’

La Dolce Vita is a 1960 Italian film directed by Federico Fellini. It’s a complicated, enigmatic picture broken down into seven episodes of increasingly hedonistic nights spent in Rome. In it, we follow Marcello Rubini, a gossip journalist floating in glamourous circles, whose real desire is to write a serious novel. Marcello’s struggle represents the primary conflict at the heart of the film: the choice between the sultry, dazzling life of celebrity culture and hedonistic parties – and the pull of the real and authentic in life.

The film’s most famous scene is set in the Trevi Fountain in Rome. The Instagram-perfect Anita Eckberg dances in the fountain and calls for Marcello to join her. She’s a siren of the 60s with wet peroxide hair and a black dress that drips. Her character, Sylvia, represents the glamour of “the sweet life” – she’s celebrity, sex, aesthetic pleasure, and impossible desire. Posters of the film often depict a kiss between Marcello and Sylvia, but the actual scene doesn’t have them touch at all. Taken in by her call but finding himself unable to touch her, Marcello stumbles upon a realisation about Sylvia: the dazzling dolce vita isn’t real at all.

What this scene reminded me of was a grand old night out: shots, clubs, sweat and hangovers. You go on this night out in the pursuit of Pleasure – Pleasure being the woman that the world told you so many stories about. She’s the one dancing in the fountain, drawing you closer, promising a kiss. You wade into the water, getting closer and closer. In the club, your hands are thrown into the air. But all the while, there’s the strangest feeling – a gentle dullness tugging at the bottom of your heart. The dream becomes a nightmare as you realise this isn’t real and that you’re always going to feel hollow pursuing a superficial Pleasure.

This feeling is best illustrated in the final scenes of the film. All the interesting and dazzling people have gathered for a final night of drunken partying. Feathers are thrown, a striptease commences and Marcello proposes an orgy of Dionysian proportions. Yet, where Flaubert described the ‘eternal monotony of passion’, the audience is painfully aware of the eternal monotony of partying. The scene is awkward, needy and drunken. With every night that has passed, the parties have stunk ever-increasingly of superficiality and desperation. It can take years before a person notices the glitter of hedonism begin to fade. La Dolce Vita will shatter it in three blinding hours.

I have a poster of the film hanging on my wall. It’s a gentle warning against artificial pleasures. I find myself distracted as I stare at it now – Eckberg does look dazzling in that dripping black dress.

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Liz Lane

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May 2022
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