Toward the end of Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” a plague of partiers race convertibles toward a lavish, gated home. They break a window to gain entry and proceed to drink and eat and talk and laugh and clap and dance. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), the perpetually dapper entertainment journalist who’s on a series of quasi-work-related late-night assignments that make up the film’s meandering plot, rocks a crème suit, dark shirt, and a neckerchief that manages to look more debonair than center square. Women fill out cocktail dresses and fur wraps, high heels and pearls. One woman casually removes her bra while cha-cha-cha-ing about the room. Sunglasses, indoors, at night? Of course. It’s all so decadently glamorous until it isn’t. Marcello tosses a drink into a woman’s face. He drunkenly slaps, gropes, spanks, and rides another like a horse, thinking he’s being playful while revelers disinterestedly gawk at the display. He eventually douses her in water and covers her in feathers ripped from a pillow.
While watching the film again for the first time in years this scene instantly recalled the impression I had when I first saw it decades back. The movie’s entire world takes place not only in some foreign time and place but utterly removed from any reality I’ve ever known. Everything and everybody looks better than any reality ever could. Marcello flits from Anita Ekberg to Anouk Aimée to Yvonne Furneaux to Nico to Magali Noël, all while wearing impeccable Italian suits. He hops from one fancy evening event followed by decadent afterparty after another until this ever-changing circus of posh bohemians ends up on the beach. And every single second Marcello glides across the screen, only one thought fills the brain: My life will never be this hedonistically indulgent.
And that’s such a superficial impression to harbor because I imagine I’m supposed to be enamored by this movie: It’s a seductive dream for straight dudes, but that’s about it. Fellini, whose “La Dolce Vita” and “8 ½” screen at the Senator Theatre Feb. 10 and Feb. 17, respectively, is one of the 20th century’s most revered directors, his films key talking points in heady discussions among intellectual American cineastes since the 1960s. And by the time I encountered his movies—through home video, with “Vita’s” nearly three-hour running time spread over two VHS tapes—the intellectual patina of his films had hardened into protective dogma. “Vita” and “8 ½” aren’t merely festival and critically feted films, they’re cornerstone bricks in what art-house cinema looks like in my mind: subtitled and in black and white, sexually permissive but spiritually concerned and morally hungover, confusing yet seductive. But there’s a superficiality to all of Fellini’s baroque sumptuousness, as if the visual bluster is there to mask a lack of reflective depth.
Those are gaping holes at the center of these two films, as they’re ostensibly explorations of a man’s mental and physical worth in this world. That emptiness isn’t the emotional anguish of Michelangelo Antonioni, a Fellini peer who was also fond of wrapping visual splendor around male characters at the center of his films’ universes. But where Antonioni at his best leaves you waiting for the void to stare back, Fellini’s obsessions run far more mundane: male insecurity that expresses itself as ordinary sexism, operatic emotions, and a navel-gazing nostalgia. And for decades now it’s been a cocktail that critics and directors can’t resist. When Sight & Sound, the British Film Institute’s film magazine, put together its most recent decennial poll of directors’ and critics’ best films of all time in 2012, both placed in the top 50—with “8 ½” in the top 10, where it’s consistently placed since 1972.
Should it? “8 ½” is Fellini’s film about filmmaking, in which Mastroianni plays a director who hasn’t a single, solitary clue about what movie to make next. So he revisits his past and wanders through dreams, retreats to both his wife and mistress, anything to avoid working. Watching it at 22, I was impressed by the movie’s visual panache and the effortless way it dances from reality to reverie and back again. In my mid-40s a movie about a man who prefers to live in memory because he’s failing to do what he decided to spend his life doing feels like an insulting kick to the teeth: This is what one of cinema’s titans has to say? That man at midlife is a nostalgic daydreamer with a mirror in one hand and his penis in the other?
That might be why I still prefer “Vita’s” degenerate luxury over “8 ½’s” narcissistic grandeur—at least in “Vita” there’s a seriocomic messiness to the entire ordeal, a portrait of a man who might still pull his head out of his ass in time to keep from becoming the cliché he’s been the entire film. Marcello’s immaturity in “Vita” is sheepishly acknowledged; “8 ½” tries to pass it off as some kind of radical self-reflexive honesty, like a columnist in love with the sound of his own typing. That they both retain the power to intoxicate on first view is a testament to Fellini and his cinematographers Otello Martelli (“Vita”) and Gianni Di Venanzo (“8 ½”) to dream up imagery overloaded with emotional oomph. But scratch the surface of that pomp and there’s little there but portraits of guys who invest every breath into chasing tail and thinking about themselves, as pedestrian and fabulist as an online dating profile.