Part Of The Picture: Idle Rich, Idle Talk

Posted on October 23, 2009



OCT 24, 2009 – WHAT MUST HAVE APPEARED the apotheosis of absurdity in 1960, the time of this film’s release, now seem weary truths of modern life – like how the famous star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) is presented a pizza when she lands in Rome, and a reporter offers this running commentary. “Showing her wonderful teeth, the beautiful Sylvia bites into a typical Italian product which, with its colors and its aroma, is as joyful as our country.” (It’s a toss as to what’s more gag-inducing – the reduction of a country to a baked dish, or the ensuing romantic clichés supposed to engender national pride.) The subsequent press conference in Sylvia’s hotel room is even more absurd. One reporter asks, “Is it true that every morning you bathe in ice?” Another wants to know, “Do you ever practice yoga?” A third demands, “Do you like bearded men?”

As a result, the defining moment of this existential travelogue – built around sights of the tabloid journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) – seems to be the scene where he reads a newspaper, as his photographer stands on a table and clicks pictures of a beautiful woman beside a horse. The photographer asks, “Marcello! This one is done. Now what do I do?” Looking up casually, Marcello suggests, “Put the horse on the table and her on the ground.” He’s being facetious, but with the tone of this film and the carnivalesque tendencies of its director, you never know. Indeed, at a high-society party that follows, you wouldn’t be surprised to see horses on tables. At first, though, your eyes alight on a woman in a sari strumming a guitar. (She’s seated at the floor of an armchair, another woman sits atop its backrest – no one’s actually sitting in the armchair.)

When she finishes her song, an old man – a guest at the party – begins to gush forth. “I always said it. The only real woman is the Oriental one. After all, where was Eve? In the Garden of Eden. And where was the Garden of Eden? In the Orient! Over there, love is really…” His wife interrupts with a question. “Why did you marry me, then?” The old man hastily acknowledges, “I know, I made a big mistake.” He continues, “Mysterious, motherly, both lover and daughter. The Oriental woman huddles at your feet like a little tiger in love.” Another guest smirks, “This guy’s been talking about the Orient for 15 years. Why doesn’t he stay there?” She turns to Marcello and asks to be introduced to his girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux). “Of course,” he says, and makes the introduction.

The guest says, “Can I say something? Don’t lose hold of this man. I’m saying this in his best interest, not yours…” Without warning, we’re deposited back in the old man’s company. “The Oriental submits both her spirit and her flesh entirely!” Again without warning, we return to Marcello’s group as someone says, “May I introduce my friend Marcello and his girlfriend Emma?” By then, the old man – as if tired of the cross-cutting – wanders into their midst. Steiner (Alain Cuny), the host, facilitates an introduction. Marcello says politely, “I agree with your concept on women.” The old man replies, “We have much to learn from these Oriental women. Because they’ve remained close to nature… the nature they conquered after many centuries of civilization…” A guest pipes up, “Say what?” The old man is unfazed. “I’ll tell you. You don’t know how to make love anymore!”

Steiner asks Marcello if he’d like a drink. As they move away, Marcello tells the old man, “I envy you very much. You know, I’ve read all your stories from around the world. I’d like to travel myself. You get the chance, to meet exceptional people, women of all races. I’d like to have children of all colors: Red, yellow… Imagine the satisfaction. Like a bouquet of country flowers.” Emma is amused (and also possibly embarrassed) by this absurd assertion. She chides, “Can’t you say anything else?” Marcello ignores her and tells the old man, “You must have an incredible gallery of memories.” The old man replies, “Memories? You think someone my age can be happy with memories? Most of all, I have projects.” He walks away, and Steiner remarks, “What an extraordinary guy. He’s written dozens of important books and has maintained a childish candor.”

Marcello muses, “I wonder where he finds so much optimism, so much faith.” Steiner says, “I’m happy that he comes and I always watch him with awe.” Yet again without warning, without an attempt at a graceful segue, Marcello says, “Listen, I see that you have a wonderful Morandi.” Steiner walks up to the wall with the artwork and remarks, “Oh, yes, he’s my favorite painter. The objects are flooded with a wistful light and yet painted with such a detachment, precision, rigor that makes them almost tangible. You can say that it’s an art where nothing is coincidental.” A hitherto hidden woman tells Marcello, “Steiner said that you have two loves and you don’t know which one to choose. Journalism and literature. Watch out for prisons. Stay free, available, like me. Never get married. Never choose. Even in love, it’s better to be chosen.”

We’ve now drifted to the next snatch of arbitrary conversation, about as “relevant” to the story as a horse atop a table. Marcello tells her, “I read your poetry a few years ago, when I thought about writing poetry… It doesn’t seem like a woman’s writing… This is the art I prefer… A clear, precise art without rhetoric, that doesn’t lie, that isn’t flattering. Now I have a job that I don’t like, but I often think about tomorrow.” By way of response, the poetess swings the topic back to relevance to the film, summing up the philosophy of the people who live la dolce vita, the sweet life. “We must all think about tomorrow, but without forgetting to live today. I think if one lives intensely in fullness of spirit, every instant will count as a year and every year one will be five years younger!”

La Dolce Vita (1960, Italian, English, French, German). Directed by Federico Fellini. Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign