Imagine yourself a Catholic Sicilian in 1960, packed into a movie theater on a cold February night with other conservative Sicilians, all hot for the promises of a forbidden film. The first thing you see is a statue of Christ, suspended from a helicopter, being transported to the Vatican. A second helicopter follows, carrying journalists who are reporting on the Pope’s acceptance of this gift. But the journalists seem more interested in hooking up with some bikini-clad sunbathers than keeping their gaze fixed on a cheap reproduction of a religious icon. The presence of these licentious men following the Christ while eyeing the girls is a rather shocking parody of the second coming, and several people in the audience are already rustling with indignation.
Even if this subtle blasphemy fails to outrage your sense of devotion to sacred objects, the scene that follows will surely challenge every lesson in social morality that the church and state has instilled in you. Marcello, one of the journalists we were introduced to in the prologue, goes into a nightclub and brazenly asks a stranger if she will allow him to leave with her. She consents, they pick up a prostitute, offer to give her a ride home, and finish the night by making love in her bed. Keep in mind that these events are not from a time and place, such as Studio 54 in the disco seventies, when such assignations were commonplace, but in the shadow of the Vatican when the moral code and values of the church were shared by a majority of the population. Not that men didn’t pick up strange women in nightclubs, or that prostitution was not rampant in certain quarters of Rome, but that the country’s movie theaters were not yet filled with strangers intimately packed together to witness such flagrant violations of the official moral code.
The movie has hardly begun, and already half the audience is ready to walk out and the other half is lapsing into adulterous fantasies. Meanwhile, on the screen, Marcello’s girlfriend Emma has taken an overdose of drugs to escape her despair at Marcello’s staying away all night. To a modern audience, these are commonplace events seen on daily television dramas. Such behavior is complacently accepted as standard fare in a society in which excellence in the dramatic arts is dependent upon the thespian’s ability to convincingly simulate orgasm. One might not even notice the flagrant indecency of the dresses designed by Fellini’s costume department, as modern audiences have become desensitized to nudity. There is virtually no nudity in “La Dolce Vita,” but if you had seen it in 1960, Sicilian Catholic or not, you might have sworn people were running around naked through the whole thing.
But what was more shocking to the picture’s first audience was the inescapable depravity that pervaded the lives of these aimless socialites, celebrities, and parasites. The events of the film become progressively decadent until all moral order collapses in a so-called orgy in which the last vestiges of civility are abandoned. But Fellini’s lengthy climax is tame compared to what one might be subjected to at a pig roast picnic on a typical naval base in the American South on a Sunday afternoon. If we watch the film today out of a prurient interest based on the reputation it acquired upon its initial release, we will wonder what all the fuss was about. But if we experience Fellini’s vision sympathetically, we will see something more disturbing than we could have ever anticipated.
Marcello is a handsome man who takes full advantage of his attractiveness to women. In following his adventures, we do not see him simply as a cad. His thoughtless cruelty doesn’t escape us, but neither does his existential crisis. Like many modern men, he is defeated by the otherness of the reality in which he is trapped. He needs other people, but cannot see them as anything but objects, while his sense of self is the only reality of substance he knows. When a famous and glamourous actress falls into his hands, we share his excitement at the adventure she provides, and are just as deflated as he when it ends, himself having been objectified by an ego stronger than his own. And when his father shows up unexpectedly for a visit, we empathize with his desire to connect with him, to show him a good time on this rare visit to the eternal city. And when his father vanishes into the mists of memory, we also feel a loss that is also relief. And when Marcello finally meets a man whom he can admire, that man proves himself the most alienated of them all, when he kills himself and his children out of his fear and despair at the world’s impending end.
Fellini presents his protagonist in such a way that we feel the sickness, not only in Marcello, but in the whole of our world, a world in which we too have lost interest, as evidenced by the complacency through which we witness its disintegration. Marcello’s life becomes an act of escapism, and endless party in which people play at being in love, and run from any kind of love that is born from true need and desire. He enjoys only one scene of peace in the entire movie. It comes with his honest and innocent admiration of a young waitress who is still in the time of her life when she is unaware of her own beauty. At the end of the film he sees her again. Several years have passed. He is at the seashore after a night, or was it a lifetime, of mad reveling. She calls to him, but he doesn’t understand. She gestures to him, but he continues to shake his head, to shrug his shoulders. Finally, he turns away from her and rejoins the group with whom he had earlier arrived. And the picture fades on the last glimmer of innocence left in a world that has finally succumbed to the darkness of the universe that enfolds it.