Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: La Dolce Vita (1960)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #39 (tied with The 400 Blows)

In the previous edition of this column, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960) represented a turning point in the history of Italian cinema. The previous two decades had been dominated by the post-WWII reactionary movement known as Italian neorealism. Neorealism was marked by three basic tenets: films focused on working-class characters (often children), utilized non-professional actors, and were filmed almost exclusively on-location. Roberto Rossellini's Open City (1945) is often considered the landmark film in this style, and filmmakers such as Vittorio de Sica (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) and Luciano Visconti (Ossessione, 1943) became important representatives of the movement internationally. For a brief moment, Italian neorealism was the focal point of the world cinema scene, with films winning top prizes at various film festivals (including Cannes, where Open City shared the Palme d'Or with a number of other films).

L'Avventura wasn't a continuation of the neorealist tradition so much as it was a revival. After audiences reacted viciously toward neorealist films in the early 1950s (de Sica's 1952 film Umberto D. is often cited for this, with its disastrous box office and criticism from the Italian government), the movement quickly faded from the spotlight. Until Antonioni infused neorealist theory with modernist detachment, the film industry attempted to rebuild itself in Rome, allowing new, different voices to take center stage in Italian cinema.

The most influential - and easily most recognizable - filmmaker to emerge from this period was Federico Fellini, the visionary Italian director best known for La Strada (1954), 8 1/2 (1963), and La Dolce Vita (1960). It's the lattermost film - the subject of this week's column - that marks Fellini's transition from a curiosity to a global sensation, and it did so through the filmmaker's abandoning of his remaining neorealist trappings to fully embrace his flights of fancy.

More after the jump.

Fellini's early films certainly had elements of surrealism and theatricality, but for the most part were still somewhat grounded in neorealism. La Dolce Vita represented a break from the tradition: the film follows Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a photographer, as he wanders the world of Rome's rich and famous. He meets and romances a heiress, Maddalena (Anouk Aimee), spends an evening with a Swedish actress, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), and observes the media frenzy around two children who claim the Madonna appears to them. Rather than follow a traditional linear narrative, the film is divided into episodic segments, with only a few of them having any continuity within the film.

This structure gives Fellini the liberty to let his imagination fly. The film's famous opening scene sees a statue of Christ the Redeemer being flown by helicopter through the ruins of ancient Rome, an image that is striking for the melding of ancient and modern via religion (as well as the comical aspect of Jesus flying through Rome). It's also a surrealist statement of intent for what to expect from the rest of the film: even though the film isn't a fantasy, Fellini is going to be telling this story through images that aren't strictly tethered to reality. In fact, the film is has a dreamy quality to it.

The film's most famous sequence, in which Sylvia and Marcello frolic in the Trevi Fountain, plays out almost like a half-remembered dream. From the way that Fellini shoots this scene, the audience can't tell whether the action onscreen is actually occurring or a fantasy of Marcello's. As a result, Fellini is able to go for unrepentant romanticism rather than bleak naturalism. As with most of the film's "episodes," the sequence doesn't have a simple resolution. Instead, it fades into the next scene, barely leaving an impact on Marcello.

Even when reality comes crashing into the film, as it does when Marcello's intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny) commits suicide in the third act, the dreamlike atmosphere never completely dissipates. This is crucial to Fellini's mission with the film: he's presenting a version of reality that's more cinematic, more literary, more palatable than the gritty, tragic reality of the Neorealists. Neorealism had come as a response to Italy's sense of loss after WWII and the fall of Mussolini's fascist regime, but Fellini was interested in something different. He was going for a style that was more playful, reveling in  the contradictory elements of Roman life rather than in misery.

More than anything else, though, La Dolce Vita announced the arrival of the Fellini who would become one of the most famous, most studied, and most mimicked filmmakers of the 20th century. La Dolce Vita can be seen as Fellini's statement of intent, laying the groundwork for the themes and ideas that his later films would explore. Fellini's film wasn't the final nail in the coffin of neorealism by any means: as previously stated, Antonioni would revitalize it for mod culture, and modern filmmakers such as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have adapted it for the 21st century. But La Dolce Vita served as a guidepost for the directions that Italian cinema would take in the second half of the 20th century, and Fellini's influence permeated world cinema as a whole.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": Taxi Driver (1976)

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