Pursuing the theme of the decadence of Rome into the Movie Century, the films of Federico Fellini from the years 1960 to 1972 point to past and present simultaneously. Fellini, among the greatest filmmakers to survive the Second World War in Italy, adopted the conventions of neorealism but soon moved to his own style of surreal fantasy.
His La Dolce Vita (1960) put ancient myth in its place and shifted its perspective to the present. Actors in the film wear modern outfits that bring to mind figures from the mythical past. The goddess (Anita Ekberg) and the demigod, two figures of ancient paganism, dance in a popular nightclub while two of the more powerful icons of the rebirth of Rome descend on the city in the form of a statue of Christ, and the cathedral named for Saint Peter. The movie is building up a graveyard of Civilization on the open field today called the Circus Maximus.
The questing hero (Mastroianni) makes a nighttime journey in and around Rome with the goddess at his side. They meet at the Michelangelo dome on Saint Peter’s Basilica and embark into the city. Ekberg is a Hollywood starlet and Mastroianni is a journalist surrounded by paparazzi assigned to cover her press tour to Rome. She finds an abandoned kitten in an alley and carries it through the dark streets until she comes upon the Trevi Fountain. Wading into the water in full evening gown, she calls to Mastroianni to join her. It would have been astounding if she had dropped her gown here, but the legend is that the water was too cold.
The film begins to unravel at this point, with decadence devolving into debauchery and debauchery becoming depressing. In a nightclub, a group of female dancers performs; they bring large balloons onto the dance floor and leave them there when they depart. Later, a sad figure in a top hat enters and plays a plaintive trumpet solo to the balloons strewn on the dance floor. When he leaves, the balloons follow him off. It’s a sad ending to a lonely night.
“The Odd Fish” (A familiar figure in Mediterranean folklore) – As things fall apart, all the party-goers wander out onto the beach where a fish of monstrous size has been hauled up onto the shore. They stand around it and study it indifferently – it appears to be dead. A pretty young girl calls to Mastroianni across a small inlet. He cannot hear her words so she mimes her invitation. Still he cannot make out her meaning and wanders off with the ragtag crew. Finis.
Bosley Crowther, film critic for the New York Times, praised Fellini’s “brilliantly graphic estimation of a whole swath of society in sad decay and, eventually, a withering commentary on the tragedy of the over-civilized.”
La Dolce Vita (1960) – Fellini
This transgressive film helped to mark the beginning of Civilization’s end at the close of the Movie Century. Fellini’s movie lends itself to an impressionistic view.
Impressions of La Dolce Vita: “The Second Coming” – A statue of Jesus strung from the runner of a helicopter while traveling to the Vatican is seen from above, an indulgence in irreverence. Marcello is the post-cultural man, a journalist surrounded by paparazzi. He meets an old friend (Anouk Aimée) in a nightclub and they drive to the suburbs with a prostitute to spend the night at her mother’s house. To further confuse the affair, Marcello has a pretty mistress at home who attempts suicide.
“The Return of the Goddess” – Marcello is assigned to cover the arrival of a Hollywood starlet (Anita Ekberg) in Rome and the paparazzi are all over the place. A reporter asks the starlet, “Do you think Italian neorealism is alive or dead?” Later, they embark on a late night tour of the Eternal City. For him, she is the Goddess and he tells her she is all women; “Pan and Aphrodite.” In a club, the Goddess dances ecstatically with a bearded acrobatic actor named Frankie, who has a need to howl with the dogs. Marcello tries to find a place where they can spend the night, but is unsuccessful.
He returns her to her hotel at dawn where he takes a beating from her jealous boyfriend (Lex Barker), who slaps her and punches Marcello in the gut. Out on a photo shoot, Marcello sees his old friend Steiner walking into a church; he follows and Steiner plays the organ for him. Next he is out in the countryside with Emma where it is alleged that two children have seen the Madonna in a tree. TV and the Press swarm over the scene and the people tear the tree to pieces.
“The Modern Malaise” – There is a cocktail party at Steiner’s with talk of art and the uses of civilization. A woman artist holds forth as a man tapes her voice and there is “dialogue between feminine wisdom and masculine uncertainty.” A suicidal Emma is with him and both are seized with envy for Steiner’s life. But, Steiner is not convinced, he feels trapped in a bubble. Marcello spends some solitary time at the beach trying to write and then returns to Via Veneto. His father pays him a surprise visit. They go to a nightclub where there is a circus-style act with a comic ringmaster/tamer and chorus girls dressed as cats.
Marcello’s father takes ill and leaves to catch a train to his home in the provinces. In Via Veneto, Marcello falls in with another group and they take their cars to a villa somewhere outside of the city. “Empty ritual” – He meets up with Anouk again and they attempt to get serious about one another, but the attempt fails. The wealthy partiers are engaged in dilettantish rites. Suddenly, Marcello is sitting in his car with Emma on a desolate highway and they have a terrible fight. He ejects her from the car and drives off, then returns and takes her home. In bed with Emma, Marcello gets a phone call to come to Steiner’s house where there has been a tragedy. He arrives to find that Steiner has been shot and killed. Marcello and a detective must meet the bus bringing Mrs. Steiner home from work and tell her what has happened. Abruptly, he is back in a procession of cars going to a party at a wealthy home. It is an exercise in decadence, or the simulation of decadence; this is where we see Marcello ride one of the women like a horse. He is cruel and abusive to most of the women. The whole affair is degrading.
Special Features on the DVD: There is a television piece where Fellini leads a grinning, silent interviewer through the grounds of Cinecitta reminiscing on his days of glory within these walls. There are also some interviews with Marcello Mastorianni and Anita Ekberg that are actually part of the Intervista (1987) material. Further irrelevance may be found in a set of about 20 brief commercials Fellini shot for use in Fred and Ginger (1986). The one for Dante Watches involves a marionette Dante.
Fellini’s Roma (1972)
This is an artistic documentary film in the same spirit as The Clowns (1971). It is a movie about Rome, and a movie about movies, and an autobiographical romp for the director. As Civilization draws to a close, Fellini begins this very personal look at Rome with some childhood memories, and dwells for a while on the days when movies and variety theaters competed for the public’s attention. The vaudeville scenes are my personal favorites. These were the times of Il Duce. Some cinematic scenes have a modern Dantesque quality, including a long sequence on the choked highways leading into modern Rome, ending at the Colosseum at night; and a sequence in the tunnels where they are digging the Roman subway. The excavators find ancient Roman frescoes (fancifully replicated), which promptly disintegrate as the air hits them. There is a long episode in a brothel, which seems to have autobiographical elements for the filmmaker; and a bizarre “eclectic fashion show” that resembles a performance by Cirque du Soleil.
Fellini appears onscreen occasionally. A nod to the times includes scenes of hippies making love and music on the Spanish Steps. The film ends with street scenes of modern Rome at night. A brief conversation with Gore Vidal in a café allows him to make the observation that Rome, “this city that has died so many times”, is the perfect place to watch the end of evolution, or at least to see if it will collapse or not. The cameras follow a motorcycle gang roaring through the ancient deserted streets of the city, past the Colosseum again, and off into the darkness. Finis.
This is an idiosyncratic and self-indulgent film that succeeds in making a beautiful city look sordid at best and desolate at worst. For a more deeply personal epilog on the metaphor of the fall of Rome, see Amarcord (1974).