FILM MAY 1, 1961
La Dolce Vita
A young idealist comes up from the provinces and is corrupted by the depraved city. This perennial theme now reappears in La Dolce Vita, surely the most loudly-heralded foreign film ever to be seen here. With many virtues, this latest Federico Fellini work suffers unfairly from advance blather; and suffers fairly by comparison with Antonioni's L’Avventura, which deals with some of the same matters.
Corruption, or at least skill in rascality, is well under way when we first meet Marcello, a young Roman journalist. The film opens with a gag of his--and a stunning visual effect. A helicopter flies over the city with a life-size figure of Christ dangling below it; he and a photographer follow in another helicopter recording the effect on people below, including a crowd in St. Peter's Square …
And we are off on a three-hour account of Marcello's money-sex jungle. The episodes include: making love with a rich girl in a prostitute's room; pursuing a pneumatic movie star although his devoted mistress has just attempted suicide'; exploiting a false vision of the Madonna invented by two children; an intellectual's party where Marcello glimpses the life he wishes he shared; taking his visiting father to a nightclub and providing him with a girl; an all-night rout at an aristocrat's huge villa; the shock occasioned by" the intellectual's murder of his children and; and a final orgy in which Marcello feverishly tries to find ways to amuse his companions.
All of the film's 106 speaking parts are unexceptionably acted by a cast which includes Anouk Aimee, the rich nymphomaniac, Yvonne Furneau, the mistress, and Magali Noel, the nightclub girl. Even Anita Ekberg, as the movie star, is satisfactory. As the journalist, Marcello Mastroianni, an actor of force and beauty, gets the chance to display all his powers except his comic ones. Alain Cuny strikes a credibly grave note as Steiner, the intellectual, and Annibale Ninchi, the father, contributes a small gem. In fact, the
father's episode - his increasing hilarity and his sudden quiet self-disgust--the most satisfactory in the film.
Fellini, justly celebrated for La Strada, Cabiria, and / Vitelloni, is a director incapable of committing a stale or careless shot to film. His vision is lively and his command is firm, whether with an intimate scene (the vitriolic quarrel with the mistress) or a mob scene (the fake miracle). He makes his actors search for truth and doesn't let them attitudinize en route. He puts his films together with a subtle rhythm and a sense of contrast which, if occasionally startling, usually justifies itself.
Yet about half-way through this film, I found myself thinking: "What next? We've had Exhibits A, B, C, of decadence. How many more?" For Marcello's story is not the point of the picture, it is only the strand on which these exhibits are hung - self-contained episodes which are samples of Marcello's environment. There is no dramatic cumulation. He is no more corrupt at the end than at the beginning; he is only more successful--and shorn of the wispy hope of being like Steiner; which was just something to mull about when drunk, like the old reporter's novel.
Fellini has set out to move us with the depravity of contemporary life and has chosen what seems to me a poor method: cataloguing sins. Very soon we find ourselves thinking: Is that all? We feel a little like the old priest in the story who is bored not only by the same old sins in the confessional but by the necessity to appear shocked so as not to offend the sinner.
There is something inevitably wide-eyed and sophomoric in an attempt to prove decadence by showing us the pair in the prostitute's bed, or Marcello riding piggy-back on a drunken girl, or by having a "respectable" woman do a strip-tease. (If we could collect five dollars from every suburban New Year's Eve party al which there has been a strip-tease, we could finance Fellini's next picture.) Anyway Fellini has loaded the dice by concentrating on the life of the Via Veneto, which has about as much relation to Rome as it does to us: a collection of international floaters of three sexes, remittance men and girls, film actors on their way up or down or through, and attenuated aristocrats. It is an ineffectual Sodom, made more remote by its orgies. I cannot remember a film orgy, from von Stroheim to the present, which didn't seem to recede as it progressed. Such episodes are apparently inherently uninvolving of the audience.
There is a recognizable desperation in all this, for the most difficult thing to render in art today is evil. What is evil in our lives? What will really shock a civilized human being today? Fornications in various combinations and places? Venality? Not likely. "What is sin?" Kafka asked. "We know the word and the practice, but the sense and knowledge of sin have been lost."
That seems a cardinal truth of our time. One perceives it in, for example, William Styron's generally undervalued novel Set This House on Fire which tried to embrace an understanding of fundamental evil and in which the author had to spend much of his time searching for meaningful large examples. It is easy to find small examples: misleading advertising, broken promises to children. But after Buchenwald, who sees Dostoevskian evil in odd matings? After Hiroshima, what signifies a strip-tease? After Freud, can self-assault evoke anything but pity?
This is very far from saying that life is now all anarchy and amorality. The evanescence of evil does not, theology to the contrary, necessarily mean the evanescence of good; it may in a torturous way mean an increase in good, or at least in compassion, to fill the gap. To hold up a lot of "wicked" pictures, as Fellini does, can do no more now than elicit that compassion. At worst, it reminds us that Fellini's Rome has not changed much since Nero's (if anything, it's improved) and that, like the poor, the shallow ye have always with you.
Antonioni's method in L'Avventura is quite different and much more effective. It is not survey but penetration, not to collect samples but to explore a few people; and it is a scheme always posed against abandonments and possibilities. But what has Marcello abandoned? Parties where ladies recite poetry and sing folk-songs, instead of stripping and shimmying. Steiner's spiritual bankruptcy is the only tragic subject in the film and it is insufficiently realized. Bereft of a cosmos, of anything more than book-club idealism (which Marcello fortunately never has the chance to explode for himself), Fellini's indictment becomes increasingly glib the more he slogs away at it. The execution is excellent; the concept is superficial.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann