How 'La Dolce Vita' and 'The Great Beauty' Taught Me to Embrace Chaos

In the never-ending circle pit of bad decisions and splitting headaches, these two Italian films have been there to steer me through.

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Oct 25 2014, 12:20pm

Image by Marta Parszeniew

As a young, childless man whose job involves a lot of getting drunk with lunatics, and whose personal life is largely the same, it's very easy to have a lot of those "What the fuck am I doing with my life?" moments. Like when you're lining up outside a nightclub, in a shopping center in a bid to meet a reality star. Or when one of your friends throws a shopping cart at a North London rap crew during a mass brawl on New Year's Eve.

When we experience these revelations, incidents, waking fever dreams-call them what you want-sometimes they can make you wonder if life would be better if it were slightly more sedate. If you should've just gone to a middling university, met a serenely empty blonde girl named Ellie, or Jess, or Hannah at a party and stayed friends with people who have poker nights in their living rooms and take drugs once a year.

But in all this madness, this weirdness, this never-ending circle pit of bad decisions and splitting headaches, two films have been there to steer me through. Two Italian films, weirdly: Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita and, more recently, Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty. Films that were made over half a century apart but could be sequel and prequel, so closely linked do they seem.

I first came across La Dolce Vita when it was given away free in a Sunday paper-fitting, as for me, the film is one of the defining chronicles of modern media. (The term "paparazzi" didn't exist before Fellini made it the name of the snap-happy photographer in his film; a word chosen because it represented to the director "a buzzing insect... hovering, darting, stinging"-an annoying prick who can't mind his own business, basically.) For those who haven't seen it, the film tells the loose, bewildering story of Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni. The Italian cinema icon is an actor whose face can veer convincingly and at any minute between suave and crumpled, classical and effeminate-helpful, given the apparently infinite facets of Rubini's character. In the most reductive terms, Fellini's lead is an intelligent, shallow, miserable, sensitive, drunk, womanizer, and throughout we are given the impression that he should really be doing something more worthwhile with his time on Earth.

Instead, he spends his late nights and early mornings getting caught up in the whirlwind of post-war Roman life: trying to chat with girls from a helicopter, driving around the empty streets with depressed heiresses, getting slapped up by American actors he's cuckolded, drinking heavily, and going on weird assignments, like checking out falsified sightings of the Madonna.

Marcello is a journalist, a good one, but one whose work remains stuck in the superficial side of Roman life-the parties thrown by obscure royals and the holidays enjoyed by visiting American stars soaking up the massively decadent, Caligula-in-shades lifestyle of the time. With his sharp suits, great hair, and slightly bemused expression, Marcello is a pissed, lost Adonis who's way too far through the looking glass. He's cool, but in a totally human, flawed, and often embarrassing kind of way. He's a weird cross between James Dean and a divorced dad.

Before you get it twisted, the reason I've found the film so inspiring is not that it tells the story of a handsome young writer who spends his time fighting off film stars and society beauties, but because of the way it tells you to embrace the chaos and uncertainty that life inevitably throws at you. Fellini was a great humanist, and even when he's working to depict the self-obsessed or morbidly pretentious, he manages to endow them with a real compassion and humanity. For every beautiful and batshit Scandinavian film starlet, there is Marcello's suicidal fiancée, his ill father, the ageing prostitute whose house he visits. 

Marcello is a smart, thoughtful man whose life has come to something of a crossroads, yet while the film deals in ideas of personal crisis, there is little redemption for him, no woman there to save him. That would be far too American. So he continues to make the wrong moral choices, even as he's admiring what seem to be the right ones: a friend of his now settled into the rhythms of family life. But the moral universe and the real universe are very different things, and Fellini isn't afraid to show us this. As it turns out, Marcello's friend isn't too happy with his domesticated lot and ends up killing himself and his children. At the end, though, no great moral judgment is passed down. Just an acknowledgment that life is often hard, but sometimes sweet. That and a giant manta ray, washed up on a beach. 

The film is a bittersweet ode to chaos, its message perhaps being that while partying too much can make you miserable, lots of other things will make you miserable, too. And that, essentially, life is a great wind that carries you. (A sentiment later expressed in one of my other favorite Italian things, The Sopranos.) The first time I saw La Dolce Vita I was about 19, working in a factory that made component parts for wind turbines. Granted, not many people would think of that as a job for life, but the film forced me to consider the idea that maybe I shouldn't feel ashamed of the urge to get out and find a less rigid life. 

Another film with a love-hate relationship with "the whirlpool of the high life" is The Great Beauty, which is set in the last days of what historically was Berlusconi's Rome.

Its lead-played magnificently by Toni Servillo-is Jep Gambardella, the ultimate ageing playboy, a 65-year-old journalist who wrote one great novel in his youth but now spends more time getting off with models and doing blow with TV producers than anything to do with his career. Gambardella is the party king of Rome, like Marcello Rubini but 40 years older. For me, The Great Beauty tells the story of what might have happened to the Dolce Vita generation, if everyone grew older, and more drunk, without really changing their lifestyles at all-what that lack of redemption shown in Fellini's film meant for the rest of everyone's lives. In Italy, there's a cliché about middle-aged bachelors still living with their mothers, and in The Great Beauty everyone is still single (even if they're legally married), clinging onto Mother Rome in an attempt to never let the glory days slip away. In my mid-20s, this is something I feel I'm already beginning to see in my own life.

The first time I saw the trailer, I knew it was my movie. A fantastical Eurotrash cacophony of Fellini, Berlusconi, Cassano, Sarkozy, and Pavarotti. The men had crimped hair, calzone bellies, cokefaces, pinstriped shirts, and red pants. The women looked like they could ruin your life with the flick of their hair. It was loud, it was brash, it was Italy.

The first time I saw the actual film, I fell in love within minutes. It kicks off with an extended rooftop party sequence somewhere in the Roman skyline. I wanted to live inside it. For some, the aspirational life depicted in American teen films-a life of big houses, close families, and grid-like coming-of-age moments-is the cinematic ideal they lust after most. But for me, it's 200 shitfaced Italians dancing on a roof.

The whole scene is just so wildly, brilliantly perfect. The fact that the song they're all dancing to is by Bob Sinclar, hands down the most ludicrous DJ on earth, was the icing on the cake. It is pure, pure chaos-a riot of spousal aggression, lechery, dilapidated glamor girls, dogs in bags, and a mariachi band.

In essence, it's a bleak scene, full of people doing stuff they seem way too old to be doing, but the hedonism is so raw, the aesthetic so devoid of anything approaching credibility, that it somehow immediately became the coolest thing I'd ever seen. When, later on in the film, Jep states that, "I didn't just want to live the high life, I wanted to be the king of the high life... I wanted not just to go to the best parties, but to have the power to make parties fail," you know that this is not just a film about people going through a phase. It's about people whose lives are defined by disarray.

In fact, the film suggests that hiding behind every great party is an even greater sadness, and that some people, no matter how hard they try, may never be able to escape from that. There's a cliché that if you get drunk a lot, your life is shallow, and you're probably seeking to fill some kind of gaping hole with alcohol. Both films seem to believe this, but with their typically European lack of interest in redemption or closure, it's never really said what that hole might be. (Something about girls, perhaps.) Instead, we come closer to the idea that maybe chaos is just what some people are, no matter how much they try to pull clear of party gravity. And in doing so, both films suggest that such a life is not devoid of meaning, not free from redemption, nor depth, but rather something to share with others who also can't quite function in a world of order.

Towards the end of The Great Beauty, there's a moment in which Jep is having some kind of profound episode at a party, watching the rest of his ageing bohemian friends dance further towards the abyss-but in an instant, that moment is shattered when he is forced into a conga line to the sounds of Yolanda Be Cool's "We No Speak Americano."

And I realized then that that's how I see life: as brief moments of reflection shattered by chaos. The only thing to do with it is get stuck.

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