"La Dolce Vita," Federico Fellini's 1960 carnival of lost souls and culture in atrophy, starts a weeklong run today at the Kendall in a new print. Freshly viewed, the movie's melancholy seems to fit uncannily well in the moment we find ourselves now. In the film there are mentions of nuclear annihilation and worries that heedless lust and wanton partying could bring Rome a second fall. You get a feeling similar to the one left after reading from a volume of Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire": America might be a celebrity trial away from the end, too.
But this is mid-period Fellini, so these ideas are pretty well behaved. It's not until "Satyricon," close to a decade later, that Fellini would go phantasmagoric. "La Dolce Vita" just has half-freaky, half-classy nightclubs with performers aping the dances of "primitive" cultures. That, and Anita Ekberg splashing around in the Trevi Fountain. You can see how the movie's tony fabulousness would go on to inspire hundreds of fashion shows and an era of rap videos. (An "urban" remake would almost have to star Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and make room in that fountain for Lil' Kim.)
For every long face in this movie, there are three or four lit up, and usually aimed at Marcello Mastroianni, who is near the height of his seductive prowess. Even when his head is obscured in cigarette smoke and his eyes hidden behind several pairs of sunglasses, you want his Casanova to hurt you. (And he probably will.)
Mastroianni plays a scandal-mongering journalist who moves through the looking glass to become part of the glitterati he stalks. Once ensconced, he starts to fret about what's important to him. Should he keep producing trash? Is he really serious about aspiring to a more classical, less decadent literary greatness?
You might say this is a dilemma that's always fascinated Fellini. He rightly concluded that trash and classicism were compatible after all, and "La Dolce Vita" appears to be the movie where those questions are worked out. His poetic sensibilities are in full effect. There's also a tremendous soulfulness that roots the movie's depiction of sin in the soil of introspection.
Wesley Morris can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.