Roommate Russ came home shortly after I started watching this; he couldn’t stay to watch with me, but said he’d seen it before in a film class, and as he left he wished me: “Enjoy the unfiltered cigarettes and ennui.”
There definitely was plenty of both. La Dolce Vita is largely the story of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a gossip columnist meandering his way through Rome’s post-War club scene – both as a writer and as a participant. One minute he is covering a press conference with a curvaceous “Hollywood starlet” (Anita Ekberg) or reporting on a pair of kids who claim they’ve seen the Virgin Mary; the next he is trying to seduce the Hollywood starlet, or hooking up with an heiress ex-girlfriend (Anouk Aimée) in a stranger’s bedroom. Marcello, and the rest of the cast, are kept busy doing a lot of scandalous things – but it doesn’t seem like people are having very much fun doing them.
But it seems that’s the point. Throughout, Mastroianni plays Marcello as a bit of a bitter cynic – he has a devoted fiancee named Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) but seems tired of her; even when he’s rushed her to the hospital following an injury, he still gets itchy and calls up Maddelena, the heiress ex, while waiting to see Emma. He swears to the starlet that he’s enamored of her, but doesn’t even bother trying to speak to her in English. When his estranged father suddenly turns up for a visit, Marcello can’t think of anything else to do but take his father to a night club, where Dad ends up hooking up with yet another of Marcello’s old conquests and ditching him.
The only time Marcello seems to really come alive is when he’s hanging out with his friend Steiner (Alain Cuny), an intellectual man of leisure. Steiner seems to be a real confidant of Marcello’s – it is Steiner who knows that Marcello really wants to write a serious book, and it is Steiner who hears Marcello’s complaints about Emma. It is with Steiner that Marcello can talk about things like imagist poetry and Sanskrit grammar and Bach fugues instead of “who’s screwing who”. Marcello attends one of Steiner’s dinner parties mid-film, where Marcello is thrilled to rub elbows with poets and professors and musicians while Emma dotes on Steiner’s two adorable children. Marcello gushes to Steiner that he’s convinced now, he’s going to straighten up and get a respectable job and finally marry Emma and settle down and have kids like Steiner because this seems idyllic. But Steiner strangely discourages him – for reasons which eventually, and sadly, become clear.
Ultimately Marcello has a choice between following his high-minded aspirations, or selling out. The problem is that selling out comes with a lot of perks that look awfully tempting, and can indeed bring a good deal of comfort and pleasure – for a while. And then you’re left even further away from your old goals than you started, and not even the thrills that thrilled you are within your reach anymore – and then what?