Monday, 12 May 2014

What is up with La Dolce Vita? A Rant.

After a long time meaning to get around to it, I finally watched Federico Fellini's 1960 La Dolce Vita at the weekend, an iconic example of Italian neo-realist cinema, universally lauded by critics, nominated for four Academy Awards and winner of one, as well as being listed by the British Film Institute as the 39th greatest film ever made. I couldn't stand it. Actually, I lie - the first hour, give or take, was by turns beautiful, intriguing, sexy and harrowing. The film's most famous scene, in which Anita Ekberg frolics in a Roman fountain was deserving of its status as an enduring icon of cinema, and Marcello Mastroianni's almost unbearable desire for Ekberg in that scene, figured by an untouchable sensuality, singularly captures one of the central and most complex themes of the film, Namely, that of the way male audiences idolise and objectivity women, necessarily making of them either Madonnas or whores. It is a moment of pure cinema, without need of dialogue or exposition, and one which is effectively ruined by the film's insistence on driving the point home, repeatedly, with endless scenes of men dryly explaining to each other what and how women should be. 

Mastroianni plays a society journalist who is caught between the temptations of the 'dolce vita' of the title - the 'sweet life' of the rich and famous, and a revulsion at the decadence, self indulgence and pseudo-intellectual posing that naturally follows. At a running time of nearly three hours and virtually no central
The best bit of the film. Save yourself the trouble and don't bother with the rest.
narrative, I can sympathise. Not tied down to the need to tell a single story, the film is able to explore its themes and paint its pictures freely. Except that, for my money, exploration entails more than simply endlessly repeating the same point in different settings. The lifestyles of the rich are simultaneously irrestistable and repellent. Celebrity comes with some pretty horrible existential consequences. Women are desirable. Women are mothers. Women are deified by men. Women are not treated like human beings by men. 
La Dolce Vita, I get it. This does not require three hours of interminable navel-gazing to come to terms with. Over the course of the film, there is undeniably beauty, composed with the artistry and artifice only accessible to a master of cinematic imagery, but call me old fashioned, I need more than artful composition, more than Italian cars shot in black and white, more than moody men in sharp suits ogling gorgeous women. Three hours requires, in my humble opinion, story. It needs narrative pacing, the ebb and flow of incident and character development. Call me a populist, but I want my characters to be in a different place when I leave them than when I met them. More to the point, I want their changes to change me; I don't want to have figured out the 'horrible' truth of my central character's ennui a full hour before he gets there (that truth, incidentally, is that rich people are often self-indulgent and boring, and hanging around self-indulgent, boring people is probably a bad idea). And I don't consider a dead fish staring blankly on a beach a sufficiently sophisticated or even interesting metaphor to justify having sat through 164 minutes hours of nicely composed shots of the same basic two or three fucking ideas. Yes, I get that it's (supposedly) split into seven segments (seven, geddit? Like in the Bible and that). I get the Madonna / whore stuff. I get the Catholic iconography, and its relationship to the iconography cinema. I get the endless descent into meaninglessness. We've all read Baudrillard. We all know about the Carnival, and the male gaze and structralism and blah, blah, blah. Yes, La Dolce Vita, you're very clever. Yes, I understand. Yes, you're spectacles are very stylish. No, you can't have my number.

And while I'm at it, another disappointment I endured lately was Frances Ha, a turgid little hipster nothing, universally and inexplicably admired, with pretensions towards both Fellini and Woody Allen. I have a far-less well developed dislike of this film, and so since it doesn't justify its own post, I wish to publicly express my dislike for Frances Ha here. I can't even be bothered to think of a pun on its lame hipster title. I know this has nothing really to do with the rest of my post. Think of this paragraph as a delightful little intermezzo

It's all, like, signs and signifiers, innit?
Anyway, before I'm accused of having too short an attention span and only wanting to watch The Wolverine or whatever, let me just say that I bloody love boring pretentious arthouse cinema as much as the next Guardian-reading toe sniffer. Lawrence of Arabia is about 4 days long and every frame of that film is exhilarating. Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is one of my favourite films, easily as iconic and twice as complex as La Dolce Vita, and yet still manages to include incident along with its religious themes. Bergman's Persona is a masterpiece of minimalist story-tellling and performance, despite very little happening during the course of the film, but it still feels more developed than Fellini's endless shrugging. I'll be damned if I know what Tarkovsky's Mirror was all about but it sure as hell didn't bore the arse off me. Pretty much Akira Kurosawa's entire catalogue is obviously pure class, as are Bicycle Thieves and The Battle of Algiers. Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie isn't entirely to my taste, but at least it's got a bit of blood coursing through its veins, and finds time to include a few laughs. And, aye, I know I've name-checked more or less the most obvious post-war arthouse cinema in an attempt to legitimise my position. Stop being such a smart arse. To return to Felllini, initially I struggled with 8 1/2, until about half way through when everything seemed to click into place for me. Perhaps I'm just a bit slow on the uptake. But for me, La Dolce Vita was the exact opposite: initially brimming with intense, potentially rich and complex imagery, tiresomely repeated ad infinitum. And don't give me any of that "it's supposed to be like that, duh, it's like we're the journalist, getting bored and ground down by it all together" guff. I am not the journalist, and I don't need three hours to figure out that rich people are vacuous. 


  1. I've never seen La Dolce Vita, and you're not selling it me, but by gum you're bang on about Frances Ha.

    1. Well I totally agree. La DV started ok........but it became boring . That boring rich people thing.......and so damn long. Who gives a damn.