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More on Federico Fellini  
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Fellini: A Life
WHEN Dino De Laurentiis was shown a first treatment of the screenplay for La Dolce Vita he was not very impressed, and it was with reluctance that he advanced Fellini about one hundred thousand dollars for preproduction costs. His dismay increased when he received a completed script comprised of nine seemingly diverse episodes, linked only by the presence of journalist Marcello Rubini in each segment. "He finds the story," Flaiano noted in his journal, "incoherent, false, and pessimistic. The public [he says] desires at least a little hope and some entertainment."
Yet, De Laurentiis was willing to finance the production if an important international star could be obtained for the role of Marcello. He felt that someone of the stature of Paul Newman was needed to "carry" the film.
"Fellini can be passionate in his convictions," Pinelli said. "Not only did he insist that Marcello be played by an Italian, but specifically that the Italian had to be Mastroianni. Fellini and De Laurentiis had fierce arguments over this and finally De Laurentiis saw a way of settling their quarrel. He proposed that the screenplay be given to some prominent critics to read and judge. Fellini agreed, mostly out of curiosity to learn their opinions."
The three experts chosen by De Laurentiis were Ivo Perilli, Gino Visentini, and Luigi Chiarini. The first two found the story structurally unsound and too complicated. Chiarini largely agreed, but thought the subject might be saved if balanced with "healthy forces" - perhaps another character who would not have come to "a dead end." De Laurentiis made the mistake of either trusting the critics' judgment, or using it as a way of bowing out as the producer. In any case, a loud argument between him and Fellini could be heard throughout the building, after which De Laurentiis stormed out.
The situation hardly being new to Fellini, he continued with preparations for filming while at the same time looking for a new producer. He simply put the project on the open market, so to speak, and indicated his willingness to talk to potential buyers. His position was one of some strength, for Cabiria was still doing well in many countries, and the word had spread that the new film would center around the high life of the Via Veneto, and would be filled with spicy and scandalous material. What happened, in effect, was a seller's market. Talks were initiated during the next few weeks with seven would-be producers, among them Goffredo Lombardo. The negotiations with him were serious, one of the sticking points being that De Laurentiis wanted his advance money back immediately. Serious, too, were the negotiations with Angelo Rizzoli, the Milanese financial and publishing tycoon, and his representative, Giuseppe Amato. At one point, Fellini discovered he had made agreements with three producing entities, and he had to wriggle out of two of the deals after putting his faith in Rizzoli and Amato.
Legends have arisen about Fellini's hectic dealings with producers. Some were known to back off just at the moment of signing a contract. One such is said to have raged, "Rather than sign such a contract, I'll eat it." Upon which, he began chewing huge mouthfuls of the paper. On a second meeting, he yelled, "You want to reduce me to starvation! I won't have a thing left to wear!" This time he stripped to the buff, causing Fellini to race out of the office. At a third meeting, all seemed calm until: "Look, Federico, rather than signing this death warrant, I'll first swallow the ink." Fellini, so the story goes, attempted to stop him, but the producer gulped the contents of a whole bottle of ink. Pinelli was not certain the story was entirely apocryphal.
Fellini was still in the midst of his negotiations when he went off to London in search of Anita Ekberg, and tracked her down in a nightclub where, he reported afterward to Pinelli, she danced without her shoes, and was indeed the living embodiment of Sylvia, the blonde sex goddess of his story. He began negotiations with her agent. While De Laurentiis was still the ostensible producer, he had interested Henry Fonda in the role of Steiner, and Maurice Chevalier had agreed to play Marcello's father. De Laurentiis's wife, Sylvana Mangano, had been enlisted for the role of Maddalena, a rich, bored, and beautiful heiress, a card-carrying member of the Via Veneto crowd, but when De Laurentiis bowed out, Mangano, too, became unavailable.
Luise Rainer met Fellini during a visit to Rome. They exchanged mutual compliments and Fellini arranged for her a private showing of Cabiria. He looked in during the screening and heard her sobbing. Before she left Rome for New York she had agreed, without seeing the script, to take on the part of the aging writer, Dolores.
Lex Barker, recently divorced from Lana Turner, was hanging around Rome, acting in low-budget spectacles, and was tapped for Sylvia's boyfriend. The cast kept changing, however, partly due to delays caused by the negotiations, at times because an expression of interest did not mean a firm commitment, and sometimes because of Fellini's own change of mind. When Henry Fonda read the part of Steiner, he disliked it so intensely that he immediately cabled Fellini his refusal. Chevalier was busy at something else by the time his contract was sent to him.
In October 1958, arrangements with Rizzoli and Amato were concluded. Rizzoli agreed to reimburse De Laurentiis for the money already advanced to Fellini, and Fellini's fee for directing was set at fifty thousand dollars, plus a share of profits. Rizzoli was doubtful, however, that there would be any profits for a film without "hope, or a ray of sunshine in it." Amato had his doubts, too, and because he was the one involved in the day-to-day disbursement of as large a budget as yet laid out on an Italian film, he constantly harassed Fellini with his complaints and arguments, until these grew so annoying that Fellini called in Rizzoli as arbiter.
With contracts signed in November, Fellini began to work with Piero Gherardi on the costume and set designs. As did the writer, Brunello Rondi, Gherardi had a special genius for knowing what was in Fellini's mind-and certainly an aspect of Fellini's genius was his ability to find and work with gifted associates. One evening, Fellini took Gherardi for a long drive and talked with him about the kind of picture he envisioned. He wanted the film to look like newspaper photographs, with sharp contrasts of black and white and, as often with newspaper action photos, a mixture of sharp focus and blurred shots. He discussed what Steiner's apartment ought to look like, and he even gave him a clue about the ending: a sign would appear before Marcello on the beach of Fregene after the orgy at the villa. "A revolting sight, halfway between mythology and science fiction." It was to be some kind of fish; to design it Gherardi had to rely on an intuitive reading of Fellini's mind.
Contemporary female fashions were to be stylized. Fellini was fascinated by the changes in women's clothing. "One day," he said, "I saw women walking along dressed in a fantastic and extraordinary way, so fascinating that it set light to my imagination." It was the new style of the sack dress that struck him most; suddenly women looked different to him, presumably missing the attractive bulges and curves that set them apart from men.
Gherardi's first meeting with Fellini occurred in September of 1958. In November, the designer was at a house he kept near Bangkok when Fellini cabled that he was ready to start production. An Oriental influence apparent in the film comes from Gherardi's residence in Thailand. Soon after the opening sequence, a Siamese style ballet is performed in a nightclub. Maddalena's bedroom is furnished with oriental pieces.
Gherardi's task was complicated not only by the need to construct eighteen sets, but by the director's constant second thoughts. "Until I have said we'll film here," Fellini explained, "I feel free to change, to keep inventing things." This freedom extended to costuming. There were times when Gherardi improvised clothing right at the scene; he kept Cinecitti's seamstresses working overtime: a costume called for at nightfall would have to be ready by morning.
The monumental task of casting 800 small and extra parts continued up to and during the production. By this time Fellini had a collection of photographs of actors and nonactors numbering in the thousands, and he would pore over these faces in anguish at the necessity of having to make a choice. Sometimes it was a matter of deciding what a character should look like; at other times he searched for an image already in his mind.
He had such a mental image of the character of Paola, a teen-age girl who reminds Marcello of one "of those little angels in the churches of Umbria." The last moments of the film were to show Paola, across a breakwater, attempting to say something to Marcello, who is unable to hear her. Marcello had met her earlier when she waited on him at a seaside restaurant while he was trying to work on his novel, and in contrast to his associates she had seemed to him a symbol of purity and innocence. She was not only important to the meaning of the film, but hers would be the last face seen on the screen.
After failing to find a Paola in his collection of photographs, Fellini went on radio and television to describe the girl he was looking for. The right one didn't turn up, so he took an ad in a Rome newspaper, inviting mothers to bring their teen-age daughters to meet him at a Rome theater he had rented. Although 5,000 mothers and daughters turned up, he was unable to find a suitable girl.
Paola was still not cast when filming was underway. An old friend invited him to dinner one evening at his home. When the host's fourteen-year-old daughter came down the stairs to say goodnight to her father, Fellini had found his Paola! Her name was Valeria Ciangottini, and Fellini signed her to a contract the next day.
A few weeks before the start of filming on March 16, 1959, Anita Ekberg had arrived in Rome and Fellini arranged to meet her in the rooftop garden of the Hotel de la Ville at the top of the Spanish Steps. He saw her approaching, followed by a retinue that included her husband, her agent, and her publicity man. Ekberg, physically, was in the mold of a Marilyn Monroe, but of much more heroic proportions. As a star and an actress, she was of far less moment, having decorated some films made in 1955 and after. Still, Fellini was vastly impressed. "I said to myself, so, these are the earlobes. . . . I felt her to be phosphorescent." Was the character she would play positive, Ekberg wanted to know, sipping at a cocktail, and who were the other actresses? There would be Luise Rainer, Fellini told her, and the French actress Anouk Aimee (Francoise Sorya), whom he had just cast for the part of Maddalena, and another French actress, Yvonne Furneau as Emma, Marcello's mistress. Mastroianni wanted to meet Ekberg, but Fellini thought he ought to wait until their scenes together began. But Mastroianni, nevertheless, persuaded him to arrange an introduction.
Fellini asked Mastroianni to join the Ekberg group for dinner. "When Mastroianni was introduced to her, she distractedly held out her hand, looked to the side, and said not a word to him for the whole evening," Fellini reported. Later, Mastroianni remarked that Ekberg was really not such a great thing; in fact, she reminded him of a Wehrmacht soldier who had forced him onto a truck back in the war days. "Perhaps," said Fellini, "he felt offended by that glory of elemental divinity, that health, the echo of a sun force which, instead of exalting him, nauseated old Snaporaz."
Mastroianni and Fellini had known each other since the actor and Giulietta had worked together in a play at the university's experimental theater, but during the long months of filming La Dolce Vita a strong comradeship grew up between them, a kind of mutual identification with the character of Marcello. Fellini nicknamed Mastroianni "Snaporaz," a name he used two decades later for another character played by Mastroianni.
Born in 1924, Mastroianni worked in his father's carpentry shop after finishing high school, then studied surveying, an ability that caught the attention of the Germans during the war. He drew maps for them until 1943, when he was sent to a forced labor camp. He managed an escape to Venice and headed for Rome as soon as it was liberated. There he joined the university theatrical group Masina was part of, and found a job with an English film company.
His film career meandered along through the fifties with undistinguished roles. In 1956, he was featured in a film starring Sophia Loren, playing the part of a taxi driver. He assumed he would be playing similar roles for a long time to come, but the Italian public had become aware of him and so had Luchino Visconti, who in 1957 starred him in a moody film, White Nights, where Mastroianni distinguished himself. So strong was his relationship with Fellini during the making of La Dolce Vita that during one two-week period on location they roomed together.
While waiting for filming of La Dolce Vita to begin, Luise Rainer went to New York, and managed to persuade Fellini to give her a copy of the script to study while she was away. The more she studied, the more she disliked her character. She wrote Fellini a distressed letter, saying that Dolores was "sordid and hateful." Fellini cabled back a soothing and flowery message to the effect that her presence in the film would add to it "a miraculous luminosity." All would be worked out when she returned. In May 1959 she was back in Rome, ready to discuss the changes she wanted. Production languished while the two argued in Fellini's Cinecitta office for several hours. Rainer headed back to New York. More cablegrams, with compromises from both parties. She returned to Rome, and Fellini changed the concept of the character to conform more closely with her wishes. She was still not satisfied, and took it upon herself to rewrite her part, an action not calculated to please any director. As time grew near for Rainer's scenes, with Rainer still molding Dolores to her own vision, Fellini solved the problem by deciding that the Dolores episode was not really needed and eliminating the entire segment, and with it Rainer, from the film. He quickly substituted an episode involving the two mischievous children who provoke a near riot with their supposed vision of the Virgin. Marcello travels with Emma to the site of the "miracle," and is saddened and sickened by the spectacle of hordes of believers taken in by the hoax. So hasty was the writing of the episode, that much of it was improvised on location, with screams of anguish from Amato and Rizzoli, who saw the budget increasing alarmingly.
Because Anita Ekberg's availability was limited, her scenes were scheduled early, and since most of them were outdoors and many took place at night, filming had to be done in chilly March weather. Marcello, who has become enchanted with the voluptuous Sylvia, follows in her phosphorescent wake, and manages to be alone with her for several hours during a nocturnal Roman odyssey. The "goddess" decides she wants to bathe in the waters of the Trevi Fountain, and Marcello gamely follows her in - a teeth-chattering scene to shoot. Another scene set in a baroque (and imaginary) nightclub in the Baths of Caracalli was shot on a huge Cinecitta set fancifully designed by Gherardi.
Also shot outdoors was the nighttime ride in Marcello's little sports car during which Sylvia "rescues" one of Rome's innumerable stray cats and insists that milk be found for it. Another scene took place on the busy Via Veneto, where filming was allowed by the city authorities only between two and six in the morning. They managed well enough for the scene on the avenue, near the entrance to the Excelsior Hotel, in which Marcello is "laid out" by Sylvia's fiancee, and she gets a chastening slap herself, but word got out among the populace, and things were a good deal less peaceful the next time the film crew came around, this time to shoot the scenes in which Maddalena drives Marcello along the avenue in her white Cadillac convertible amidst heavy traffic. The police agreed to allow the "takes," so long as traffic wasn't snarled. Fellini, in a lead car, led the way for the Cadillac with the two actors. Anouk Aimee was not an experienced driver, nor had she ever driven a car as huge as the Cadillac. Behind and beside her were camera and production cars. Not only was her nervousness showing, but a sizable crowd had been attracted by the procession, late as the hour was. People lined the sidewalks as the parade of cars turned into a side street and made its way around again for another trip up the avenue. Some ugly epithets were yelled at Fellini by one troublemaker, infuriating him enough to go looking for the man afterward with two husky crew members.
The restrictions and the behavior of the onlookers was too much for Fellini. He told Amato that future Via Veneto scenes would have to be filmed in the studio, which would mean reproducing the avenue on the Cinecitti lot, an undertaking so expensive that the budget would have to be increased by 50 percent. Amato flatly refused, and it took an appeal to Rizzoli to get the additional financing, but with a condition. Fellini agreed to give up his percentage of the profits.
Gherardi went to work taking meticulous measurements of the stretch of Via Veneto that Fellini wanted to use. Then he recreated a replica at Cinecitti that was a marvel of exactitude except for one little thing: Via Veneto rose upward from Piazza Barberini to the gateway of the Villa Borghese gardens. The Via Veneto of the film was flat, a circumstance that bothered Fellini not at all.
During July and August, the production moved to locations in the vicinity of the seaside resort of Fregene. One of the scenes shot there, though brief, is evocative because it reveals Marcello's confusion of impulses. He is attempting to write his novel on the patio of a beach restaurant. His typewriter and some blank sheets of paper are on his table. He makes a telephone call to the possessive Emma, loses his temper and hangs up. It is then that he notices the young waitress, Paola, the epitome of the innocence that he, presumably, has lost. He stops writing, and telephones Emma again, a defeat of sorts.
Lengthier were the scenes shot in a luxurious villa that occur toward the end of the film. At this point in the story the by now thoroughly disillusioned Marcello has left journalism for press agentry. A large group of partygoers has swept in from Rome to celebrate the divorce of Nadia (Nadia Gray), a matronly beauty. Marcello appoints himself a sort of master of the ceremonies, which include a striptease performed by Nadia. One of the onlookers is a pretty starlet, whom Marcello humiliates by riding her like a horse, then covering her with feathers from a pillow he has torn open. Then, as the partygoers leave toward dawn, he "blesses" each of them with more feathers.
The "orgy," as filmed, is more symbolic than real. Nadia, during her striptease, is never entirely uncovered, and whatever sexual acts might be transpiring are left largely to the viewers' imaginations. However, Fellini, ever the stickler for verisimilitude, decided he needed some expert advice.
"Believing that Pasolini [who had been brought in to help with the dialogue for Cabiria] was familiar with orgies," he told Giovanni Grazzini, "I invited him to dinner, but Pier Paolo told me he didn't like middle-class orgies and knew nothing about them. He was sorry, he said, but he had never participated in any, and didn't know anyone who had. So I started the sequence with no idea in my head, got the actors arranged, and suggested we invent some debauchery. I had a beautiful Dutch assistant who kept her eyes on me in anticipation of seeing me produce who knew what crazy scenes of turpitude. After two hours I heard her saying to another disappointed assistant, 'He wants to play the pig, but doesn't know how.' "
Two of the segments filmed did not appear in the finished version. One took place at an awards ceremony (another vestige of Journey with Anita), and the other at sea, where Maddalena and Marcello are picnicking in a boat. A girl who is swimming near the boat is burned to death when a cigarette tossed into the water ignites some gasoline that has seeped from the engine. The film was already overlong, and the murder-suicide of the Steiner episode seemed starkness enough. Still, Fellini claimed he could have made a ten hour film with the available material. As it was, he continued improvising within the confines of the script and without it. Many of the party scenes taking place at the Castle of Bassano di Sutri were improvised and shot while retakes were being made. Fellini gives credit to Brunello Rondi for suggesting much of this material. Rondi, he said, was an avid partier and had tales to tell of goings-on that took place in the abodes of patrician Romans.
It is at one of these patrician parties that Marcello reencounters Maddalena, for whom he has conceived an infatuation. In one of the most remarkable scenes of the film, Maddalena, although she has been willing to sleep with Marcello (in a prostitute's bed, of all places!), is not willing to commit herself to a serious relationship - and yet she enjoys playing with him and leading him on. This penchant of hers is almost surrealistically illustrated in a conversation between the two. She leads Marcello to a large room, empty except for a chair in the center, and tells him the room is called "the chamber of serious discourse." She has him sit in the chair, and leaves. The camera follows her to the end of a marble hallway where there is a shell-like fountain beneath the statue of a nude woman. "Marcello," she whispers into the fountain, "can you hear me?" He does hear her, mysteriously but clearly, and is moved to declare his love. She admits she loves him, too, but feels unfortunately that she has whorish instincts. This doesn't faze him, and while she continues to seduce him verbally, a young man appears, and in a moment, while Marcello is still foolishly pouring out his heart, Maddalena makes love with the stranger.
The role of the intriguingly amoral Maddalena provided an important turning point in the career of Anouk Aimee. Twenty-six, not a classic beauty, she could nevertheless stir a critic to write, "she is an actress with a haunting quality, so delicately suggestive of the Modigliani portraits that her presence stirs a sense of wonder." Fellini managed to coax from her an erotic quality, along with a cold, suppressed hysteria and the suggestion of a lost, sympathetic woman. But it wasn't easy, Aimee never having displayed those qualities before.
He spent hours patiently explaining to her the nature of the woman she was playing. With the camera turning, she would tighten up, and wouldn't bring out what he wanted. Finally, he resorted to performing a crazy little jig behind the camera just as she started a scene. He made funny faces, he waved his arms wildly. Aimee kept on, but her effort to keep from laughing gave him the quality he was seeking.
"She can be absolutely shy," he remarked, "and in the next moment she's as tough as a shark in deep waters. She always maintained with me her little-girl persona, but behind that facade there was a bit of what I wanted her to have in Maddalena - an almost metaphysical sensuality."
He succeeded with Ekberg, too better than any director before or since. With her, he took a more flirtatious approach, gave her little hugs, intimated a passion for her that could not be given real expression. He inspired Gherardi to costume her not only glamorously, but at times outlandishly. In one of her scenes she climbs the narrow, winding staircase (re-created at Cinecitti by Gherardi) to the dome of St. Peter's, garbed in an adaptation of a cardinal's robes, complete with hat. "Federico," Ekberg complained, "I think you are making a fool out of me."
As a shortcut to emphasizing the characters, Fellini concentrated on the faces of his huge cast. For many of the smaller roles he selected faces that would evoke an immediate audience identification. Others were there to add to the mood, as in the case of an old clown, who appears in the scene in which Marcello entertains his father at a nightclub. The clown pretends to be taming three "tiger" girls with his whip, but as he does a little dance with a balloon he directs his glances at Marcello's father, who has taken a fancy to one of the "tigers." This scene foreshadows the orgy in which Marcello will "ride" the starlet.
Otello Martelli, Fellini's photographer, was given difficult tasks to accomplish.
"Because," said Martelli, "what was important to him was the focus on the characters. He wasn't concerned how this might affect the depth of field. I would tell him that the use of a particular lens contradicted the principle of its use. 'What can that possibly matter" he would say. He turned out to be right. The film was given a certain style, severity to the images, concentration within the frame, along with some distortion of the characters and the settings."
Fellini, in considering the score for the film, had at first thought of adapting period music, but working again with Nino Rota, he look a more grab-bag approach in line with the varied moods and atmospheres. There were themes original with Rota, along with snatches of "Stormy Weather ... .. Arrivederci, Roma," and "Patricia," a song Marcello first hears played by Paola on a jukebox, and again when it is used to accompany Nadia's striptease. For the next few years, "Patricia" became a favorite accompaniment for striptease artists in London and Paris. It was by now noticeable that Fellini had a penchant for circus-type march tunes, and he used one again.
Rota was known for his absent-mindedness, and Fellini was nervous about losing the themes they had developed. He insisted Rota keep a book of musical notation during their work together in Rota's home, an old Roman palazzo with peeling plaster and a huge skylight, not far from the Pantheon. The book was kept on top of Rota's piano, and each theme in it was carefully labeled and identified according to which film it had appeared in. For further security, Fellini brought a portable tape recorder along to Rota's home.
Fellini was unsure about keeping his "monster fish" at the end of the film. Gherardi had started with a formless lump of material. "I made a kind of huge beast," he later explained, "with blobs of plaster all over it like veal tripe. For eyes I gave it convex enlarging lenses." Two endings were shot: one with Marcello left drunk and alone on the beach, following the all-night orgy, and another with the orgiasts trooping at dawn to the beach, where fishermen are just pulling in the monstrosity. The bloated sea creature seems to stare upward at Marcello with a dead, accusing eye. In both endings, Marcello hears Paola calling to him from across an estuary, but can't make out what she is saying. Fellini had taken a dislike to his "fish," but ultimately kept it in.
Filming ended toward the end of August 1959. By then Fellini had changed and departed from the original screenplay to such an extent that the script kept by his secretary was said to have grown larger than the Rome telephone book. After two months in the editing room-punctuated by frequent quarrels between Fellini and Amato over what should be cut or kept, a first version ran more than three and a half hours. By mid-November, what Fellini said was his final version came to just under three hours. The length was needed, he said, for an "arrhythmic quality" that would reflect the kind of life portrayed. His original conception had taken on a grandiosity beyond his early intentions. "I wanted to shoot with the camera," he said afterward, "a conflagration in the culminating moment of its splendor, just before its disintegration."
THE screenplay begins:
A vast panorama of the Roman countryside. To one side are the ruins of the San Felice aqueduct, towering arches that come striding across the land. Two thousand years ago these arches brought water to the city, but now there are many gaps where whole sections of the aqueduct have fallen in. Directly in front is a soccer field, the goal posts dwarfed by the height of the aqueduct. In the distance the sound of motors is heard. A speck in the sky grows rapidly larger. It is a helicopter, and beneath it is a hanging figure. A second helicopter follows closely behind. As the copters pass over the field the figure suspended below can be clearly seen. A larger statue of Christ the Laborer swings from a cable. The shadow of the copter and this incongruous figure flashes across the walls of the aqueduct. . . .
From these startling images the scene changes to the roof of a modern apartment building on which four young women in bikinis are sunbathing. The copter carrying the Christ figure passes on, but the second copter swoops low, and Marcello and Paparazzo, his photographer, make their appearance. Marcello silently indicates that he would like to make a date with the girls, who are airline stewardesses from another country.
With this beginning, Fellini makes clear some of his intentions: the contrast of Rome's 2,000-year-old past with the present - helicopters, modern-day journalism, stewardesses relaxing between flights, a reporter seeking an unusual story, the luxury of a sun bath amidst the bustle of the city, an ever-present photographer, a statue being airborne to the Vatican.
Commentators, favorable or unfavorable, can be forgiven for seeing in the film a morality tale, the story of a man on a spiritually barren path that leads him toward a private hell. The film also seems to indicate that society as a whole is on a downward spiral. Fellini has denied any overtly moral purpose or parable in the work, but he has also said that at one point he considered titling it Babylon, 2,000 Years After Christ. Even while developing the screenplay, when Marcello was still called Moraldo, he said publicly that his film would be about "Moraldo, no longer as he was when he arrived in Rome, but twenty years later, already a little hardened, already on the edge of shipwreck." And that he would be seeking a change in his life, a "transfiguration."
Thomas Mann once said about his novella, Death in Venice, "I, the creator, am dazzled by its many facets," and while Fellini never appeared to be dazzled by La Dolce Vita, he must have been at least somewhat dazed by the varying interpretations of his film. "The author," he said, "is the last one who can talk consciously about his work with knowledge," and at times he seemed to have as much difficulty in analyzing the layers of meaning as did the many others who tried.
Oddly, the film, viewed a quarter of a century after its birth, doesn't seem fully to merit the amount of explication it has engendered, and the fact that it has, over time, inspired so much analysis would seem to be a tribute to the power and allusiveness of its images. The interpretations have been many and varied.
For instance, Professor Donald P. Costello of Notre Dame wrote in his book Fellini's Road (1983), "Marcello-is never just a journalist in Rome. He is modern man faced with modern life, and even, behind the modernity, eternal man faced with eternal life - or death."
Costello sees mythical elements in the very composition of the images. In describing the first of the episodes with the rich, bored Maddalena, in which she leads Marcello to a tryst in the bedroom of a whore she has had him pick up, Costello sees more than a simple attempt on Maddalena's part to escape from boredom: rather, he says, Fellini is ritualizing the approach to the prostitute's apartment. "He creates a cinematic dance. Circled in the spotlight of the car's headlights, Maddalena floats along a wall, the camera picking up the gliding motion, gliding itself and then varying the Maddalena and camera rhythms with Marcello's twirling of a rose. This dance introduces us to the central compositional figure of the film: the twirling spiral."
The spiral is there again in the staircase that Sylvia, the film star, ascends with Marcello to the roof of St. Peter's. But for others, such as the French critic Gilbert Salachas, it is dawn's early light that is the key to Fellini's meanings. "In Fellini's world," Salachas wrote, "dawn signals the moment of truth. The spell is shattered, and a person finds himself once again alone and shivering, abandoned, pathetic, left with neither energy nor illusion." Almost everyone saw meaning, but not always the same.
Alfred Hitchcock, borrowing from early Russian theorists, liked to say that cinema's effects came from the director's juxtaposition of images. Couple a shot with one image, and it would convey a meaning; substitute a second image and a different meaning would result. Fellini's approach was more intuitive, as though meanings were to arise not from juxtaposition alone, but from the nature of the composition of a particular shot or grouping of shots. His actors-all details-were to conform to the "life" his imagination infused in the scene. "Choosing a setting," he said once, "forces me to bring into being an indistinct world, to deal with real possibilities. . . . That's why I am tremendously afraid of that moment." In La Dolce Vita critics often saw more than actually met the eye, as when a swarm of photographers on motor scooters follow Marcello in a sports car and Sylvia in her large car on her way to Rome. Realistic as it was, film historian Edward Murray would say about the sequence: "Secular processions take the place of sacred ones. A long line of cars containing devout worshippers of the flesh, followed Sylvia from the airport into Rome . . . ...
Many saw spiritual and religious implications. Fellini's friend, Father Angelo Arpa, a professor of theology at the University of Rome and one of the few clerics in Italy to approve the film, said, "Never has cinema included in sin such a profound sense of bitterness and weariness, or misfortune and desolation."
If discussion about La Dolce Vita made anything perfectly clear, it was that its meaning lay in the mind of the beholder. There was no doubt in the mind of reviewer Moira Walsh, writing in the Catholic magazine America, that "Fellini intends this film as a salutary moral warning." But she worried, rather immodestly: "What will the effect of this film be on someone without my advantages of intelligence and training?"
If John J. Navone in Commonweal regarded it as "the most Christian film in years," Michael Roemer in the Reporter saw it in secular terms: "Implicit in the film is the suggestion that if most of us had money, and therefore time, we would stand face to face with the unresolved emptiness in which we live; that it is only the strait jacket of the daily struggle that saves many of us from a continuous experience of chaos."
For critic John Simon, the film implied "the impossibility of loving." Dwight Macdonald seemed to want more from the vaunted orgy scene, which disappointed him. It was "embarrassingly dull," he wrote. Beyond that, he said, the film was "a sermon against upper class corruption, but one that exploits its gamy subject matter as much as it exposes it." Macdonald was one of the a la mode critics who chose Antonioni's L'Avventura as superior to La Dolce Vita. When La Dolce Vita was entered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1960, Antonioni's La Notte was also entered, and a spirited kind of partisanship-Fellini versus Antonioni-developed. Novelist Georges Simenon, the presiding juror that year, became La Dolce Vita's most enthusiastic supporter. He also met Fellini and was impressed by his honesty and simplicity; their friendship continued for many years.
In his Intimate Memoirs Simenon wrote: "Thanks to the vote of Henry Miller, who doesn't have an opinion and has decided to vote as I do, and one other juror, La Dolce Vita wins [the Golden Palm], and I go out with the list of awards to Fabre-Lebret [the festival director], who is waiting out in the hall. He is not alone. A representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is there with him, but aren't both of them being told what to do by Paris? Our list of winners does not delight them." When Simenon fulfilled his duty by reading the names of the prizewinners at the gala evening that closed the festival, he was "hissed, whistled at with police whistles, while Giulietta waits in the wings and [afterward] sobs on my shoulder."
There were those who had developed or espoused particular film theories, and with film-making in one of the most fertile periods of its history, they struggled to fit into their critical framework each new work of extraordinary originality. Andrew Sarris had his "auteur theory" to defend from the battering assaults of the feisty Pauline Kael-but here was La Dolce Vita, with a seemingly loose structure, events related to each other thematically instead of by plot - and the films of Antonioni, whose approach was influenced as much by the new-wave novel as by abstraction generally in the arts. And soon enough came Last Year At Marienbad, directed by Alain Resnais from a nonlinear script by Alain Robbe-Grillet, which mingled past and present in an enchanting puzzle that was never completely resolved. How to deal with these when one's theory is based on the kinds of films directed by John Ford and Howard Hawks, and others who had managed to stamp their individuality on their films while staying within the confines of a studio system?
So Sarris conceded that La Dolce Vita was important because of its "social impact," but then he proceeded to deflate it, saying that Fellini had "enlarged his material without expanding his ideas." The film's failures, he went on, were formal as well as intellectual and, in general, the film was as bloated as that infamous monster fish of the ending. Meanwhile, in the New Yorker, Edith Oliver advised her readers "to ignore the forced irony . . . and take the movie as it comes." And, she asked, "What is wrong with some pretty girls sunbathing in bikinis?"
Robert Richardson, in his study, Film and Literature (1969), described a striking correlation between La Dolce Vita and T. S. Eliot's masterful poem The Waste Land: "To put it simply, Fellini's films depend heavily on what are usually thought to be solely poetic techniques, while Eliot's poetry makes frequent use of certain cinematic techniques." He then finds that both the film and the poem are "twentieth-century versions of Ecclesiastes, visions of the hollowness of contemporary life." The Tiresias of the poem and the Marcello of the film are, therefore, ideologically related.
Quite wrong, Charles B. Ketcham, a professor of religion, would seem to be saying when he claims that "Fellini uses the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church as the theological format [Ecclesiastes having made his lament long before there was a Catholic Church] . . . . It is the belief of the Church that the sacraments spiritually cover or provide for each important stage or phase of life-from birth to death. In La Dolce Vita the spiritual life of the protagonist covers just such a progression, but in this case, because of the choices and lifestyle of Marcello, each 'sacrament' - each decisive action-moves Marcello toward his spiritual death rather than salvation. . . . It is this theological mythology which binds the seven main episodes of the film together into a meaningful whole."
The mystical number seven intrigued other analysts of the film, and although there were at least nine episodes during the writing and editing stages, much significance was attached to the fact that as finished there were seven. Although the screenplay, as published, breaks the film into fifty distinct scenes, the episodes referred to are presumably those that involve Marcello with Maddalena, Sylvia, his father, Steiner, the aristocrats' party, the false miracle, and the final orgy.
For her analogy, Barbara K. Lewalski, in the Massachusetts Review, called upon Dante. "Fellini has consciously undertaken . . . a contemporary Divine Comedy in a modem medium for modem times. . . . The characters and situations make fairly obvious allusions to their Dantean prototypes in The Inferno." Much like "a journey through the various circles of Hell, Marcello observes and only passively participates in the various evils and perversions of modem life. . . . The scale of evil extends downward from the natural sins of the flesh to the much more reprehensible perversions of intellect." For Lewalski, Fellini's imagery was also transposed from Dante.
Richard A. Duprey, in Catholic World, agreed that Marcello inhabits an earthly hell, but he also drew on the number seven to link the film with the Book of Apocalypse, because of the seven dawns, which bring "the harsh light that dismembers dreams and delusions." Duprey multiplied his allusions to include Marcello as an "Italian Peer Gynt" and, in a later article, as "an unwitting Faust."
The Steiner episodes bothered many critics. Henry Hart in Films in Review could see little point in the meeting between Marcello and Steiner, which takes place in a church, and immediately follows Marcello's hectic night of adventure with Sylvia and his humiliation when her fiance knocks him to the ground with the photographers gleefully catching the action. Marcello, in a dismal mood, has entered the church and finds in Steiner a sympathetic, encouraging friend, someone interested in his developing himself as a writer. The scene is basically one that characterizes, but that also provides a calm interlude between the frenzy of the night with Sylvia, and the near madness of the "miracle" scenes that follow. It contrasts, too, the peace of the old church, in which Steiner plays a Bach fugue on the organ, with the religious delusion deliberately encouraged by the press, radio, and television reporters covering the story told by the silly children. Moreover, it shows Marcello looking for an answer to his psychic dilemma, wondering if it is here in the church, in the music Steiner plays, in Steiner's very life style. But there are hints of something else; a touch of pretentiousness in the literary Steiner's playing Bach in this ancient church, and at the end of the scene, a foreshadowing that comes when the camera closes on Steiner's face as he stares grimly into some other realm. It would be hard to imagine a scene with more meaningful overtones, and Alain Cuny, who played Steiner (Fellini had discovered him late, when he saw the actor as the cuckolded husband in Louis Malle's The Lovers) gives it a sensitive reading.
Whether this is what Barbara Lewalski refers to as "the reprehensible perversion of intellect," or whether she means the intellectual gathering that takes place at Steiner's apartment, an examination of that scene shows several motifs, one of them being a gentle poking of fun at the pretensions of the guests, among whom are a mannish woman, Margherita ("You know her abstract paintings"); an Indian girl who plays the guitar and sings; Repaci, a novelist ("He has written dozens of books; you know their importance"); and Iris, a woman poet dressed in an odd monk's robe. Then, too, in this scene Steiner acts rather strangely, describing himself as smaller than a thimble. Talking with Marcello, he indicates his dissatisfaction with "a sheltered existence in a world where everything is organized," and at the end of the scene he has a long speech in which it is evident that he is filled with fear and anguish, that "peace makes me afraid," that he distrusts it, that it hides a danger, and that his fear is tied in with what the world will have in store for his two lovely children. By this time, it is clear that Marcello has found in Steiner a role model. He has brought his mistress, Emma, with him, and when she takes in the handsome apartment, the seemingly happy home life of the Steiner family, she tells Marcello that this is what they ought to have together. Oddly, Emma was overlooked by most critics as part of the "seven episode" scheme, yet she appears throughout much of the film.
The Steiner scenes, including the one in which Marcello learns that Steiner has killed his two children and himself, struck many critics as unmotivated, although one wonders how much more clearly Fellini could have indicated a forthcoming tragedy without telling the audience about it in advance. But the tragedy is not the Steiners' alone; it is also one more disillusioning shock and failure, cataclysmic for Marcello in his search for a meaningful life.
Naturally enough, Fellini, who had brought on this avalanche of interpretation, was asked for his own explanation of his intentions in La Dolce Vita. He went to Paris in April 1960 for the press screening. With him were his collaborator, Pinelli, and his assistant, Dominique Delouche, to help him through the interview session, which was held in the suite he shared with Giulietta in the elegant Hotel Plaza-Athenee. By this time, with the enormous commercial success of the film in Italy, he was being treated very well by his producers. The suite was brightened with vases of roses, carnations, and lilies. Seated on a couch, Fellini pondered questions asked by Martine Monod of Les Lettres Francaises.
"I am not a man who dashes off messages," he told her. "I don't have a very precise ideology. When you describe your epoch, no matter how impartially, you notice that there are emergencies, events, attitudes that strike you more than certain others and that are more important. . . . So you unconsciously become a moralist. If La Dolce Vita has a meaning it came all by itself; I did not go after it."
Fellini, Martine Monod said, got up from the couch and looked out the window. He was tired of hearing about the scandal the film had caused in Italy. "Do you know what the Milan upper bourgeoisie could not tolerate? The orgy. It upset them; they were in agony at seeing themselves in the mirror."
The new film, he wanted to make clear, was linked to his preceding ones. "Contemporary life is filled with contradictions: a frantic, tense, exciting life and, in fact, a terrible emptiness, an immobility. Men, for example, going from one woman to the next, from adventure to adventure. And all this, only to end up revolving around oneself without really budging."
It was Rome, he said, that was really the star of the film. "The Babylon of my dreams. I chose it for its permanence. Rome is there like a symbol. Any big city in any epoch would have served as a background for my film."
In another interview, he attempted to clarify his "Christianity." "If by Christian you mean love toward one's neighbor, yes, all my films revolve around that idea. There is a priest who came up with a fairly accurate definition when he said: 'When the silence of God falls upon mankind.' Aside from what is solemn and biblical in this definition, yes, La Dolce Vita could be viewed in this light. Indeed there is the silence of God, for love is lacking. They only talk about love, but they are barren, unable to give it. Thus even La Dolce Vita is a deeply Christian film."
At other times, in discussion, Fellini would edge away from any too obvious moral meaning, including too close a connection with a "Christian point of view." When speaking with students of the Centro Sperimentale (the film school adjoining the Cinecitta studios) he said he didn't want the film thought of as a kind of trial, but if taken as such, it was "not a trial seen by a judge, but rather by an accomplice."
In a later interview with an American professor, Charles Thomas Samuels, he made an even stronger denial about showing corruption, and said there had been no polemical intentions in the film. The title, he went on, "came to have a meaning exactly the opposite of what I had intended. . . . I wanted (it) to signify not 'easy life' but 'the sweetness of life.' "
"That's not the way it comes out," Samuels objected. "Marcello looks like someone wallowing in trouble. Think of that scene in which he sees an angelic girl . . ."
"That is a result of the myth produced by a Catholic upbringing," Fellini replied. "A wish for some purity, something morally complete and angelic-stamped at the bottom of our minds and leaving us with a nostalgia for something rarified."
"If he could attain that would he be better off ? "
"No," said Fellini, "he likes la dolce vita, [finds it] very fascinating."
"At the end, he makes a gesture of resignation."
"No, he says, 'I don't hear. I don't understand. It could also be considered a bantering gesture: 'I don't hear you because I don't want to hear you.' "
Fellini found himself doing more and more explaining, always seeming to want to simplify, while others were complicating. It became a matter of seeing in the film what one wanted to see. Moralists saw sin and corruption. Theologists saw a soul in torment. Easy pleasures were equated with evil; unsanctified sex led to perdition. Where Fellini left ambivalence, viewers wanted definition.
The last scene has this ambivalence. Most viewers took it as symbolic of the corrupt state into which Marcello has fallen. But a closer look at the scene reveals some ambiguity. When the fishermen haul in the amorphous monster, one of the onlookers says, "Oh horrible!" But a woman, peering at the "fish" more closely says, "My God, the splendor!" The fish, meanwhile, seems to stare at all of them, in close up, with its round, unmoving eye.
Then, hard upon this view of the "fish," its mouth dribbling jellyfish, comes the sound of children playing on the beach across an inlet. The girl, Paola, is standing there, calling to Marcello. He can't make out what she is saying. But we hear: "Me and you-in the car . . . don't you understand?"
But he can't hear, he can't understand, gives a weary little shrug and turns away. The last shot on the screen is of Paola waving and smiling. It is an aching and evocative moment. The viewer is left feeling that Paola perhaps does have a message for him, but that unfortunately (or willfully, as Fellini suggested) he can't hear it. Fellini said that in the case of Cabiria he wanted to give his audience a gift at the end, and here, perhaps, he was again reminding them of "the sweetness of life." He had searched hard and long for the right girl to play Paola. The sea monster, he has said, came from a childhood memory of something like it that a storm had thrown up on the beach at Rimini. Was Paola the memory of his Rimini love, Bianchina? That has to remain in the realm of speculation, but when asked at the time what his next film would be about, Fellini said that he might attempt to explain the mysterious message Paola was trying to give Marcello.