La Dolce Vita famously opens with an iconic scene of economical absurdity, as a statue of Christ — his arms extended in blessing ― is helicoptered across the city of Rome, on its way to an audience with the Pope. Trailing the statue in a second helicopter is the rakish society journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) and his photographer Paparazzo (Walter Santesso). They peel off for a minute to make half-hearted advances to a bevy of women lounging poolside on the roof of a nearby hotel, but they find their overtures frustrated by the distance between them. A quick bit of business that’s entirely subsidiary to the scene’s main action, this brief exchange also sums up so much about the film’s impressive formal command. Making precise use of both vertical and horizontal space, it’s exhaustive surveying of the entire widescreen frame functions as a marker of an all-encompassing futility, setting an oppressive mood that’s pierced only by the mordant buoyancy with which this meaninglessness is broached.

More than anything else, the film’s tumbling progression of set pieces serves to signal a failure of communication. Throughout, language fails in its attempts at bridging divides, conflict either erupts or fizzles out without resolution, surfaces are rarely punctured. In each case, the image prevails, at the cost of the meaning behind it. This pictorial extravaganza forms something of a thesis statement for what’s probably Fellini’s most enduring work. At the start of his greatest decade as a director, it finds him committing to a cinema less focused on the dispensation of rhetoric than one of overwhelming visual stimulus.

That’s not to say this is a movie in any way short on ideas, which are meted out in rhyming resonances, religious allusions and a persistent use of water. Much has been made of the film’s metaphoric septet structure, spanning roughly a week in Marcello’s life, which can stand in for anything from the seven deadly sins to the period spent on creation. Yet it seems far less fruitful to try and mandate the shape of this structure than to trace the progression of various motifs as they wend their way across the interconnected episodes. These mostly orbit around Marcello’s search for the perfect woman, which is always fruitless, pure beauty repeatedly confirmed as something frivolous and momentary. His quest is in some sense sexual in nature, and although it bears deep existential undertones, remains inextricably linked to a fantasy of a faultless feminine ideal.

This uneasy commingling of sexual, maternal and spiritual desire is summed up by a passage involving the supposed miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to two peasant children, an obvious hoax to which the Church is forced to grant license as it swells into a genuine local phenomenon. Marcello’s appearance, along with the rest of his media cohort, signals a tipping over into outright fiasco that culminates in the trampling of a crippled child, brought to the site in the hope of finding healing. Wedged within the cogs of a larger promotional apparatus, this encounter operates as an amplification of midcentury Italian life, as experienced by Fellini himself. Wafted atop the rising creme of a rapidly modernizing society, beset with all its attendant anxieties, he found the usual metaphysical concerns metastasized into garish new configurations, commercialization assuring that every desire can be sated, for the right price.

Key to the film’s levity in the face of all this confusion is Mastroianni’s performance as a figure who, as in many of their collaborations, serves as an anchoring presence, a directorial avatar whose driftlessness nevertheless impels and organizes the action. While he’s mostly seen at work, it’s never quite clear what Marcello is writing, although suggestions seem to indicate it’s not much of substance. In fact, his failure to produce, or at least set down any lasting memorial to his supposed talents, is a running theme, noted by himself and others. Yet we always know what he sees, the visual element emphasized by the welter of press photographers in which he seems constantly immersed. Like a mobile Greek chorus, they reflect and refract his doubts about his professional and private behavior, adding a chaotic overtone to already carnivalesque situations.

The grimmest of these occurs after the death of Marcello’s intellectual friend and role model Steiner (Alain Cuny), a man with a fulfilling career, sumptuous apartment and seemingly perfect family. Confiding in Marcello his fears about the future, he shockingly proceeds to kill himself and his two young children the following morning. It falls to Marcello to report the news to Steiner’s wife, a task that turns into another circus as the gaggle of cameras swarms her, turning a private, agonizing moment into another public spectacle.

Yet unlike Marcello, Fellini himself controls both image and text, a would-be mastery he humorously passes on to his avatar in the culminating “orgy” scene, which plays as a mocking commentary on the director’s own function. Leading a group of fellow carousers as they stagger compulsively toward dawn, Marcello breaks into his friend’s unoccupied beach house outside Rome. Inside, he tries to stage-manage the waning party, encouraging an impromptu burlesque act and assigning romantic partners, as the worn-out guests mostly ignore his desperate imprecations. The party drags on anyway, with everyone eventually straggling down to the beach to greet the sunrise.

Here they stumble upon the festering carcass of a massive manta ray, another enduring symbol that pairs neatly with the one from the introduction. In that first flight, the idea of the divine was tweaked but still idealized, granted a lofty space above the Eternal City. By the end, however, the reality on the ground is made grotesquely manifest, and as a devilfish, no less, far from the piscine symbology of Christ set out in the scriptures. Marcello surveys the situation from a grim remove, until being interrupted by distant calls from the teenaged barmaid he’d encountered earlier, during a failed attempt to get some serious writing done. A reflection of the roof-lounging women from the opening, she signals from far down the beach, her words drowned out by the waves. Whether she has something to offer him, or just another alluring illusion, is left unclear, a final tantalizing enigma from a movie full of mysterious images.

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