Monday, August 3, 2015

La Dolce Vita

I don't know if it's more surprising or sad that I had never seen more than a short clip or two from La Dolce Vita.  I mean I've owned the DVD for ages and even recently picked up the Blu-Ray (though this is missing in the house somewhere).

Now despite this being a 55 year old film (and among the most famous films ever made), it is apparently possible to have gone through life (even as an admirer of foreign films) and not know much about the film.  It may well be that the 3-hour length is enough to scare many people off.  Certainly I never felt I had a 3-hour block of time, aching to be filled by a jaded look at the life of rich and idle Romans.

Actually, in my case, it is particularly sad as I have accumulated a small pile of Fellini films, but have not watched any of them.  But that is the case with so many of these masterpieces.  There are just too many of them (and generally quite cheap too, especially if you wait for bargains from, and I tend to spend my leisure time reading.  In terms of foreign-language film makers, I've done a reasonable job watching Jacques Tati and Ingmar Bergman and Kurosawa, though there are still important films left to watch (at least for the last two). I've seen a small handful of films by Godard, Melville, Antonioni, Fritz Lang, Roy Andersson, Satyajit Ray, Tsai Ming-Liang  and Bela Tarr. I've seen almost none by Renois, Truffaut, Rohmer, Ozu, Naruse, Fassbinder or Fellini as I said.  This is depressing, and yet I also know I have many amazing movies yet to see, and many of them I could show the kids, at least my son, as they get a bit older.

I found out somewhat late that TIFF was doing a summer in Italy film series this summer, and I actually decided somewhat at the last minute to go try and see Amarcord (inspired by stills of the movie in an Italian restaurant in Stratford).  But I must have gotten the timing wrong and the movie was shown only once (while I was in Stratford!).

That left only La Dolce Vita as a movie I really wanted to try to see, since I knew I would be a lot more likely to make it through in one sitting in a movie theatre.  However, as I mentioned in the 1000 Monkeys post, that overlapped with the ending of the playwriting marathon, and going from one marathon to another putative one seemed awfully punishing.  Nonetheless, I kept it in mind as a goal, and when it became clear that I would finish early, I went home and got ready to go to the movies...

In the end, I fussed around here a bit (recovering) and made it to the box office with only about 15 minutes to spare, yet there were a few tickets left.  Just like the showing of Kubrick's 2001, it was completely sold out by the time the curtain opened, and they ultimately opened up the balcony, though I suspect some people were turned away by that point.  I realize if they showed these movies on a more frequent basis the crowds would thin out, but it seems there is a fairly healthy demand out there for putting the revered classics up on the big screen.  Maybe we'll see the revival of 2nd run theatres here in Toronto, or the ones that are still hanging on will start programming the foreign classics again.  One can dream anyway...

From this point on, there will be SPOILERS, so turn away if you are a Dolce Vita virgin.

I'd only known about a couple of scenes, and even the raucous party at the end played out a bit differently than I thought it would go (it was more sordid and yet more of a tease than anything really debauched, as I imagined it would be).

However, the Trevi fountain scene did play out more or less like I thought (though again a bit anti-climactic (intentionally so!)), simply because that that clip is shown in all kinds of contexts.  Still, I wasn't aware that Ekberg had the kitten all over her head walking to the fountain.  The way she had Marcello Mastroianni going around begging for milk was quite hysterical.

(Of course, I made it a point to see the fountain when I was in Rome, though it is hard to image it nowadays being deserted at any time, day or night.)

For some reason I thought that Paparazzo was going to get knocked off his Vespa and killed, though that did not happen at all.

However, I was thrown for a loop, and was truly surprised and shocked by one scene of the film: Steiner's suicide and the fact that he killed his two children first.  I can imagine him feeling empty and contemptuous of Roman society, though his own soirees did seem a bit more high-minded than the other parties that always seemed about ready to degenerate into orgies.  But what drove him to drag his children down with him?  I clearly don't think about movies nearly as much as the people who really love them, like these critics.  I will say that they present a few compelling arguments, namely that Steiner so feared what the world was coming to (decades before the environmental crisis became truly existential as it is started to feel today...) that he wanted to "save" his children from it, or, alternatively, that he was such a narcissist that he wanted to withhold his perfect children from the world.  I lean slightly more towards the first option.  However, it is interesting how one can think and over-think the film.  I suspect that their revulsion to his deeds color their subsequent viewings of the film, when they say things like Steiner's playing Bach in the church is a pretentious, obvious choice or even that Steiner is clearly putting Marcello on when he says that he enjoys his writing.  Furthermore, they claim that the children's bedroom is a modernist nightmare, and that Marcello is being dishonest when he says that he finds this a refuge and that he would like to come over more often.  I didn't get this feeling.

I do agree with them (and this helps put the movie in better perspective) that the loss of Steiner removes Marcello's polestar and without this belief that there can be dignity in erudition, even in a very degraded Rome, he quickly surrenders to the lure of easy money.  I didn't quite realize that he had become a publicity agent for the film industry (that may have been more apparent in the screenplay), but he is definitely more shallow (and yet even more disgusted with himself) at the end.

I thought the creepy eye of the ray or skate that the fisherman bring up from the depths was referenced by Bela Tarr in Werckmeister Harmonies.  I'm quite sure that the party breaking up and the revelers wandered off into the dawn has been used dozens of times since, though I am struggling to think of the last time I've seen it used.  References below are welcome.

In terms of scenes I liked quite a bit - when he is left hanging in the whispering chamber and the scenes with his father, including the very melancholy scene where his father senses if he keeps overdoing it in Rome he will drive himself to an early grave and he catches an early train home.  Marcello trying to make a connection with his father, convincing him to stay another day, may be the closest he comes to real emotion (even the scenes where he yells at his finance seem like play-acting).  He is just the most extreme case of all these characters drifting through life.  Ebert's Great Movies review touches on this here and there.

A powerful scene, though not one I liked very much, is when Steiner's wife is wondering why everyone is trying to take her picture as if she is someone famous (this is before the horror is unveiled to her, though she suspects something is wrong).  Nothing at seems sacred to these newspaper reporters (generally the previous takes on them was that they acted all cynical but most had a sentimental streak like in The Front Page).

I thought the scene out in the countryside worked well, but those scampish children leading the credulous villagers on a merry chase after the Virgin Mary definitely deserved a good scolding.  Instead, everyone in the family was getting ready to cash in, and why not if the media was going to make money too?  Only the foolish took it seriously, and yet even those who only took it half-seriously couldn't resist trying to touch the miraculous and killed the tree by tearing away its leaves and then branches.  The tragedy of the commons in action... I do think Fellini masterfully closed out the scene with one of the supplicant children dying and the mother crying in the rain.  (This was almost as good a use of rain as Kurosawa.)

That leads me to a question.  The whole business of the film (and television?) crew setting up to film this little tree (almost as forlorn as Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, even before its branches were torn off) reminded me of another film where while the action is going on, a big construction set is being built.  I believe ultimately the actors are asked to move along, since they are not going to be in the shot, though I don't remember that for certain.  I think, but may well be wrong, that this was in color.  It certainly was a foreign-language film, but I don't know if it was Fellini's 8 1/2 (probably not) or some homage to Fellini by Antonioni or a French or even Japanese film maker.  If that sounds at all familiar, drop me a note in the comments.  Thanks.

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