“La Dolce Vita” opens with a shot of the sky and ends with a shot of the sea. In both these scenes, there is a thing of ancient beauty that contrasts with the depraved people that surround it. In the opening, it’s a statue of Jesus. In the closing, it is a dead stingray. People cluster around these things like flies to honey. Yet, I resist the obvious explanation as to why these empty people are so devoid of inner meaning that they have to gather around something beautiful to brush it. Instead, I propose a different interpretation, one that involves spectacle.
The characters of Fellini’s epic are not victims of a societal structure, but rather victims of themselves. Marcello Rubini, for example, tries to distance himself from the paparazzi that chase his celebrity friends around. But the irony is that he, a tabloid journalist, is creating the very system that those vultures thrive in. Marcello, like so many other characters in this film, creates an empty, meaningless system, and expects to survive in it, and, when he doesn’t, he lashes out. And when he can’t lash out at his friends and loved ones, he lashes out into empty air.
Fellini conveys this empty coldness in a variety of ways. For example, there is rarely a close-up in this film. A close-up is instrumental in bringing viewers into a character’s inner world and establishing empathy. However, most of the coverage involves wide shots and two shots, neither of which gives us a clear point to focus on. Through this technique, we never feel caught up in these characters’ exploits. It never feels like their lifestyles are glamorized, either. Rather, we feel the same detachment that the protagonist feels. Secondly, there’s Marcello Mastroianni’s performance as Marcello Rubini. Marcello the character is the ultimate existential protagonist, passing through life, not really belonging anywhere. The performance mirrors that, as the actor seems unglued from the world that he lives in. His steely eyes and unforgiving stare suggests a man who’s been hollowed out.
Marcello and the others instead survive on spectacle. Everything can be turned into spectacle, from women, to music, to religion. That is why the viewing of the Virgin Mary is being treated with the same level of media frenzy as a celebrity arriving into town. Even a woman losing her two children is turned into spectacle. To make something spectacular is to objectify it. It removes any hidden depth and turns it into something that can only be appreciated at an aesthetic level. An empty life becomes easier to manage when dressed up in shiny gift wrap.
This is why, at the end, Marcello decides to turn the tables. Instead of treating the world as a spectacle, he spectaclizes the others that surround him. By drunkenly objectifying each and every one of them, he tries to make them realize the damage that they have done and the way they have dehumanized the world around them. It doesn’t work, however, and these people instead turn the death of an animal into another spectacle.
Marcello tries to escape this life by talking with a young girl who is clearly representative of “The Simple Life” (as opposed to “The Sweet Life”) but it’s too late. He can’t hear a single word she is saying. And because he is so deafened from the real world, Marcello gives up and rejoins the familiar, poisonous world he helped create.