LA DOLCE VITA (literally, "the sweet life"; figuratively, less so) unfolds as a series of capsular stories. Nearly all of these vignettes conclude with tragedies of varying magnitudes. Possibly the most startling dénouement comes from the story of the intellectual Steiner, protagonist Marcello Rubini’s long estranged mentor in the literary arts. The two reunite amidst the pews of a church that Steiner frequents, although he’s not attended for religious reasons, but to gain access to the priest’s literary collection and the massive pipe organ. Pumping the instrument’s keys, jesting with a few strains of jazz until reprimanded by the padre, Steiner radiates a mix of confidence and tranquility, while Marcello skulks in the background, slinking into the shadows of the church’s corners, as though trying to shield himself from Steiner’s astute eye.
The reason for Marcello’s attempt to lay low? Shame. Marcello’s behavior, as a gossip columnist, has revealed him to be the type of person not easily cowed into ignominy. Confronted in a nightclub over a recent article in which he revealed an elegant, modestly bejeweled noble as an adulteress, he merely dons dark sunglasses, and shrugs. “I have to inform the public,” he says, “it’s my job. After all, it’s just a little publicity.”
But with Steiner, Marcello adopts a humble demeanor revealing a sense of shame. The once-promising writer is reminded by Steiner’s gentle inquiries of his past goals, now abandoned by the wayside. When asked about the state of his book, Marcello lies, pretty poorly too, “It’s going. I’m gathering material. Actually, I just finished.” He then attempts to shift the topic of conversation from himself to Steiner, who ignores the blatant attempt and continues pressing Marcello. It’s a serene inquisition, the sort that can make one feel much worse about oneself than being yelled at (think, “I’m not mad. I’m disappointed.”). The strategy is effective, as Marcello immediately admits to a self-assessed inadequacy: “I don’t think I know how to write.” The phrasing, though, and the occasion, a reunion with a former mentor, indicates that Marcello doesn’t just see his writing as deficient, but his entire way of being. Confronted with Steiner, a worldly, sanguine intellectual who dabbles in jazz and Sanskrit, Marcello is unable to retain his confident visage, and is forced to confront the deep seeded notion he possesses: he considers his life a meaningless failure.
La dolce vita is ostensibly a snapshot of life of the itinerant Marcello, who wanders about chasing stories and tail. But what undergirds this story is the unsatisfied endeavor that Marcello undertakes for a meaningful existence. Marcello attempts to give his life value through sexual hedonism, floating through and instigating escapade upon escapade. They’re simply diversions, though, and the effort of the chase and thrill of sexual success serve to distract, not satisfying Marcello, as they occupy his mind and keep it from more serious matters. And while the pursuit and attainment of such ribald games is fun, they’re ultimately activities utterly devoid of the sort of meaning that an intellectually minded chap such as Marcello would want.
HE ASSUMES THAT Steiner, so collected, has succeeded in the attainment of a meaningful life, although this assumption is wrong. Steiner has taken a different track than Marcello exploring other avenues for value: instead of churning out literary rubbish, he’s surrounded himself with a coterie of intellectuals, poets, and expats, and instead of indulging lasciviously in the Roman post-War boom he’s settled down, with a beautiful wife and two cherubic bambini. In his pursuit of meaning, he’s explored intellectual theories, erudite ideas and topics, and the stability and love found in familial life. But rather than feeling fulfilled, Steiner feels smothered, confessing as much to Marcello:
Don’t think that safety is being locked in one’s home. Don’t do what I did. I’m too serious to be an amateur, but not enough to be a professional. There. A more miserable life is better, believe me, than an existence protected by an organized society, where everything is calculated, everything is perfect… Sometimes at night this darkness, this silence, weighs on me. Peace frightens me. I’m afraid of peace more than anything else. To me it seems that it’s only an outer shell and that hell is hiding behind it. I think of what my children will see tomorrow. “The world will be wonderful,” they say. From what point of view? When a phone call can announce the end of the world. One should live outside of passions, beyond emotions, in that harmony you find in completed artworks, in that enchanted order. We should learn to love each other so much, to live outside of time, detached… detached.
Steiner is affected by a deep dissatisfaction with his present lot, stricken with a feeling that despite having tried to seek meaning, the answer still lays outside his grasp.
LA DOLCE VITA doesn't just address Marcello and Steiner’s attempts at finding meaning in life. Through various episodes, Fellini tries to address various other paths through which humanity has attempted to find meaning. Religion, already rejected in Nights of Cabiria, but revisited here, is presented as a riotous, savage scene when pilgrims and the press flock to a backwater town where two children have purported to see the Madonna. The scene is brutal, and religion is shown as a sham, not a succor, that instead of offering value and salvation, draws out the worst in people: the children are used by their relatives to draw garner attention and gain for themselves, the press turns what should be a sanctified, impromptu event into a staged production, and the pilgrims give thought only to themselves, selfishly trampling each other, fighting tooth and nail to retrieve a piece of the tree that the Madonna supposedly appeared at. In the end, there is no glory from the religio-circus. The young tree is ripped to pieces, finally torn down and flattened into the mud, and an ill pilgrim lies dead, run over by the mob.
Money, nobility, and power are also presented and then rejected as possible avenues for meaning. The rich of La dolce vita are supremely bored, and entertain themselves with silly games, such as séances, ghost hunts, and role-playing trysts. The attainment and possession of riches are meaningless and hollow; one family even allows an enormous palace they own to go to rot because they just don’t need to care about it. This same family hosts a party in a majestic room flanked with enormous busts and portraits of ancestors, and one cannot help but notice that the men of stone and painted women seem to have more of a grasp on existence then the ones of flesh, who lounge around plush couches with an air of utter indifference bordering on disgust.
Steiner’s quest for meaning, unfortunately, is sabotaged by his utter despair. Marcello is called to appear at his building, and races up the stairs, past policemen, startled neighbors, and fellow reporters clamoring to enter Steiner’s large penthouse apartment. Steiner is slumped upright on his couch, a small trickle of blood running from his temple, while a detective matter-of-factly announces the tragedy: having sent his wife off to some friends, Steiner preceded to shoot his children and then himself. He takes the easy way out, escaping life and its difficulties, and his failures to come to terms with them. Marcello thinks aloud, struggling to comprehend Steiner’s actions as he waits to deliver the awful news to Steiner’s wife: “Maybe he was just afraid.”
Fear, the despair at never finding reason or meaning, and the inability to accept that these questions may go unresolved drove Steiner to his ultimate action. He flees life in the only way he can. Marcello’s father, too, a philanderer and traveling salesman, escapes when things have gotten too intense. After suffering a mild heart attack while trying to bed the stripper Fanny, he becomes suffused with regret and pain, fleeing Rome on the next train. Marcello longs for this sort of exit, to be able to leave when life has become to much to handle. But he is unable to give anything up: he loves his shallow sexual pursuits too much to abandon them; he can’t even leave his girlfriend, whom he passionately despises, with any sort of finality.
And so he condemns himself to the life he suffers through, one party after another, each equally bereft of meaning. The last party of the film appears to be a preview of the rest of Marcello’s life, a shallow, maudlin mess in which women clamoring to become stars crawl about drunkenly while Marcello shamefully coats them with feathers or exhorts them to perform stripteases.
HE IS GIVEN one last chance at redemption, though. After this ultimate party spills out onto the beach at dawn, Marcello wanders away from them, drawn to a small inlet. Across the rivulet of water stands a young girl, an Umbrian angel who he encountered previously when she worked as a waitress. She waves and calls to him across the mini-fjord, but the sea-noise is too great. Fellini was well known for picking actors based on their appearances, treating “his actors as faces and potential images rather than performers” (Peter Bondanella 142), and this girl, blond and willowy, is no exception. Her features and gaze trigger a deep reaction, and it is apparent that if only Marcello could go to her, could learn from her, or even just talk once more with her, she might affect him for the better.
Alas, it is not to be. Unwilling to get his feet wet and to put in the extra effort to cross his own mini-Rubicon, the myopic Marcello blithely shrugs, abandoning her, and his own possibilities, on the gray shore. He goes off, perhaps to rot, perhaps to suffer through a lifetime of cold dawns. The camera lingers on her, and her translucent smile fills the screen, a judgment of his opprobrium and failures, a monument to his self-made tragedy.