Fellini’s Angel

Paper by Ann G. Avery.

La Dolce Vita was directed by Federico Fellini, and was filmed in Rome, Italy in 1960. Fellini’s masterpiece has been associated with neo-modernism, subsequent to the neorealism movement. It could be said that La Dolce Vita is an avant-garde film which would fit best in the comedy-drama genre, although I believe it occupies its own genre. According to Zach Zimmerman, “La Dolce Vita encapsulates the high modern movement in film, being an art film in every sense of the word, especially as it was made under the direction of the auteur. In producing La Dolce Vita, Fellini attempted above all else to craft the film into a piece of high art.” Fellini wrote his own rules in filmmaking; it is was his independent spirit which created the triumph of La Dolce Vita.
While some might mistake La Dolce Vita’s epilogue for a sentimental endnote; its implications are far more. The finale pulls the threads of the film’s theme together to reveal their meaning with masterful subtlety.

After a long night of revelry, the partygoers stumble onto the beach at dawn. There, they encounter a large sea monster being pulled onto the shore in a net. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) wanders to the scene and looks into the poor creatures eyes. Soon thereafter, Marcello finds a seat on the sand, but is then distracted by a female voice calling from the opposite side of an adjacent bay. Rising to his feet, he recognizes the hailing figure to be that of Paola (Valeria Ciangottini), whom he had met at a restaurant by the ocean where she worked as a waitress (in an interlude of the film).

The importance of the scene’s succession of shots, is that through the synergy of the elements of the scene’s diegesis, the underlying meaning is expressed. For example, the scene’s mise en scène, which is the beach at dawn, gives a dream-like quality to the setting, which complements its narrative. The cinematographer utilizes a combination of long shots, medium shots, and close-ups to tell the scene’s story. Most memorable are the close-ups, in which the cinematographer, (Otello Martelli), captures nuance and authentic emotion – moving beyond suspension of disbelief into truth. Aside from an otherwise caustic review of La Dolce Vita, Harvard Crimson’s Raymond A. Sokolov Jr. characterized Martelli’s work as “the most imaginative and skillful cinematography I have ever seen.” The mise en scène and cinematography harmonize to lift Fellini’s message from the scene’s moments. The sound, largely crashing surf and wind, contributes to the otherworldliness of the scene.

The shots of the sea monster work in the scene separately, as they symbolize the sad and unfortunate parts of life which Marcello must face. One might feel that it is just a scene involving a dead fish – why impart any meaning to it? Fellini placed it there for a reason. According to Alessia Ricciardi, “Some critics have proposed to interpret this event as a Christian metaphor, relying on the traditional association between fish and Jesus and the reference to the three days between his crucifixion and resurrection.” The fish, washed up to shore with its sorrowful gaze, catches Marcello’s eye. The close-up on the fish’s eye, communicates its helplessness; Marcello looks into the poor creature’s eye with empathy, the inference is that Marcello recognizes his own vulnerability within the creature’s gaze. Ricciardi continues, “What is certain is that here, at the finale, Fellini avoids any suggestion of resurrection or deliverance for his characters and hence any hint of a redemptive religious message.” The scene works together with the final scene by providing it a doorway. Paola stands behind the watery divide – Marcello cannot reach or hear her. She represents the unattainable, elusive, purity wanting in his present life. On Paola, Alessia Ricciardi offers, “His reunion with the young siren [from the seaside restaurant] indeed promises to enlarge on the charged significance of their first meeting. As Frank Burke writes, ‘When Marcello encounters her earlier . . . he is able to relate to her only as an icon [an angel] . . . purely as simulation. . . . One could also argue that the film itself does precisely to Paola in the final scene what Marcello did earlier . . . ‘reproducing’ her as an icon of spirituality.’” Marcello is called back to his peripatetic ensemble of friends, but he turns back to Paola one more time. (It is interesting to note that the woman who is pulling him back is a worldly contrast in appearance to Paola’s perceived chastity.) A flicker of regret washes over his eyes as he realizes that the innocence she represents is out of his grasp. Regarding my theory, Ricciardi provides a beautiful insight:

Fellini toys with our expectation of a fleeting ‘moment of being’ or epiphany that will enlighten the anxious hero, an expectation in keeping with the classic narratives of modernism. Marcello, however, appears to miss his opportunity for inspiration, unable as he is to hear Paola’s shouted attempts at communication over the noise of the ocean. Resigned to his condition, he walks away to join a woman from the previous night’s group of partygoers. The piercing last shot of the film lingers on the sweet, benevolent smile of the young girl. Marcello is absent from the picture, the epiphany has not happened, and the riddle of modernity has not been solved. The hermeneutic elusiveness of the moment might best be captured by Foucault [Michel Foucault], when a few years later he envisions the very concept of man inviting his own annihilation ‘like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.’ It is of crucial significance that Fellini chooses for the final drama of failed consciousness one of the favorite loci of high modernism: the seaside encounter with a young girl.
An alternate interpretation can be found on the Classic Art Films website:

Paola, the adolescent waitress from the seaside restaurant in Fregene, sees Marcello and calls to him from across an estuary. She makes hand gestures trying to ask him how his typing is going for his novel. But the words they exchange are lost on the wind and drowned out by the crash of the waves. ‘I don’t understand. I can’t hear you!’ Marcello yells. He signals his inability to understand what she is saying as Marcello is now a lost and defeated man as he pathetically returns to the partygoers as they all walk away from the beach. In a long final close-up, Paola waves to Marcello then stands watching him with a sad smile not knowing that Marcello’s ambition to be a writer is now long gone.

The film’s elements and styling convene to interpret Fellini’s vison, but it is my opinion that the acting is the most captivating filmic element of the scene. The performances are natural and give the scene a spontaneous and realistic feel. The acting also had an improvisational, organic texture, as if Fellini’s direction conjured the honest portrayals.

Meaning is created and imparted to the viewer through metaphor and imagery. The metaphor of Paola, is that she embodies the wholesomeness Marcello desires; there is something in her sweetness and guilelessness that could redeem him (from himself). Meaning is also created by the intimacy of the close-ups and the shot reverse shot of Marcello and Paola across the water. The cinematography brings the viewer right to the heart of this tender and unforgettable moment.
The shots convey information using long shots; medium shots; close-ups; and a combination of omniscient and restricted point of views. Characterization is conveyed through dialogue, and the actor’s emoting without dialogue. The performances by Marcello Mastroianni and Valeria Ciangottini are done with very few words, harnessing the spiritual language between them.

These shots could have been used to provide a contrast to the rest of the film’s scenes wherein the director could make an end statement. The impact of the scenes is derived from their simplicity, spirituality, and wistfulness. The finale, along with its accompanying intermezzo, imparts a limpidness against the (charming) raucousness of the other scenes.

Meaning is built in the scene by alternating between the sadness of the poor animal and the hope that Paola symbolizes.
The scene relates to the film’s other scenes in that it provides an intimate, introspective and spiritual divergence from the ongoing fête of the film.
The scene is part of a pattern: the innocence of Paola, and what she represents, is visited in the middle of the film in the café by the sea. According to the Classic Art Films website, a pattern around the number seven can be found, “The most common interpretation of the film is a mosaic, its parts linked by the protagonist, Marcello Rubini, a journalist. . . . Interrupting these seven episodes is the restaurant sequence with the angelic Paola; they are framed by a prologue (Christ statue over Rome) and epilogue (the monster fish), giving the film its innovative and symmetrically symbolic structure. The evocations are obvious: seven deadly sins, seven sacraments, seven virtues, seven days of creation.” I found this analysis very fascinating as I had not perceived the “seven” pattern.

I don’t believe that La Dolce Vita adhered to a 3-part structure or classical Hollywood narrative. According to Alessia Ricciardi, “Indulging a taste for caricature and grotesquerie not unfamiliar to his Spanish precursor, Fellini makes La dolce vita a “Cubist” film by cultivating a disjointed narrative style at odds with the linear plots favored in classic Hollywood movies.” I also believe that many unfavorable reviews of La Dolce Vita make a hyper-superficial assessment of Fellini’s work. In speaking of disregarding the classical Hollywood narrative, an article on the Classic Art Films website asserts, “Abandoning traditional plot and conventional ‘character development,’ Fellini and co-screenwriters Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli, forged a cinematic narrative that rejected continuity, unnecessary explanations, and narrative logic in favour of seven non-linear encounters between Marcello, a kind of Dantesque Pilgrim, and an underworld of 120 different characters.” I do not believe that cohering to a 3-part or 4-part structure validates a film as “good.” Conversely, I believe that when filmmakers diverge from the classic Hollywood narrative, the potential for innovation and genius emerges. Otherwise, creativity is held captive and grows stale under accepted conventions.

La Dolce Vita’s final scene is significant to the whole of the film as it provides the profundity and spirituality upon which the story and plot rest. Some might say that the scene at the Fontana di Trevi with Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) is the turning point, or is the standout scene which defines the film. The scene with the luminous Sylvia is the obvious choice, she represents everything that Marcello seeks on the earthly plane: beauty, escape from his nagging wife – but it does not attempt to elevate him – he remains tied to his mortal failings. Paola, by contrast, has nothing to do with the world he lives in, she reminds him of a heavenly realm of sweetness he has forgotten. In a sense, she represents his salvation. A succinct parallel to Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 is drawn by John C. Stubbs:
When Guido tries to explain the character to Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), the actress who will play the lady in white in Guido’s movie, the fantasy figure comes to life again as a girl the hero meets at the springs. In Guido’s words, she is ‘both young and ancient . . . a child yet already a woman . . . authentic . . . radiant,’ and she sets a table for two at night in a deserted square. This figure is, to be sure, a mysterious one. Early on, Guido asks, ‘What if you were the symbol of purity . . . of spontaneity?’ But then he pulls back from this interpretation and quotes the critic Daumier on the need for Guido to move beyond such symbols. Is the lady in white a religious figure? A mistress? A young wife? Is she to be a source of inspiration, a muse, for the middle-aged filmmaker, who is worried that his creative powers are failing him? Without answering any of these questions specifically, Guido finally tells Claudia that her character will be the hero’s ‘salvation.’

In the notes section of his essay, Stubbs correlates: “In this respect, the lady in white recalls the character of Paola, the young girl from the outdoor restaurant in La Dolce Vita.” Fellini returns to the theme of finding salvation from these angelic characters. The undercurrent of compassion can be found throughout his films: outcasts or the misunderstood are characterized in a sensitive light. It might also be said that Fellini exalts them as misconstrued heroes. The same can be said for the fish: the ill-fated creature was really a messenger. This can also be seen in 8 1⁄2 with Saraghina (Eddra Gale), an outsider that finds a redemption of sorts through the adoration of a young Guido and his friends. The significance of this scene is twofold: it underscores the veiled essence of the film, and speaks to Fellini’s overarching themes throughout his films.

Just as one cell is important and vital in a living thing; one scene of a film is an irreplaceable part of a storyteller’s vision. The scene is important in the film’s analysis because it is the heart of the movie, giving it lifeblood. The final phrase of Fellini’s masterwork is the bittersweet understanding that tragedy intertwines with hope and love. The door is always open, or in the case of La Dolce Vita, the waters may be crossed; it is a choice between goodness and the illusions of the world. There is a similarity to that of La Strada’s ending on a poignant note. Fellini leaves us with Paola gracing the final scene, a beatific aura radiating from her innocent smile. The audience knows, and the symbolism is, that Marcello has walked away from the very thing for which his soul yearns.

Works Cited

Sokolov Jr., Raymond A. “La Dolce Vita.” The Harvard Crimson, 1961. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1961/5/16/la-dolce-vita-pfor-those-who/. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016.
Zimmerman, Zach. “Film as History: Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as a Historical Artifact.” Boston College Undergraduate Research Journal, 2010. https://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/elements/article/view/9034. Accessed 11 Nov. 2016.
Ricciardi, Alessia. “The Spleen of Rome: Modernism in Fellini’s La Dolce
Vita.” Modernism/Modernity, vol. 7 no. 2, 2000, pp. 201-219. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mod.2000.0044.
“La Dolce Vita (1960).” Classic Art Films, 2015. http://www.classicartfilms.com/la-dolce-vita- 1960. Accessed 11 Nov. 2016.
Stubbs, John C. “Fellini’s Portrait of the Artist as Creative Problem Solver.” Cinema Journal, vol. 41 no. 4, 2002, pp. 116-131. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/cj.2002.0017.

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