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Monstrous Gaze: The Quandary of Spectatorship in La dolce vita

Dolce 1

By William Repass.

In the thematic arc formed by Fellini’s body of work, La dolce vita  (1960) can be said to represent a pivot: his first film in which various reactions—against a repressive Catholic milieu, against the formal and ideological constraints of Italian neo-realism—coalesce into a fully-realized counter-aesthetic, incontestable both on and off-screen. The film exhibits not only an increased reliance on such big-budgetry as fantasized costumes and elaborate studio-recreations of real locations (Bordanella 139), but also a consistent gesturing beyond the frame and toward the audience. Most critics cite (1963) as Fellini’s first truly metacinematic effort, but his phenomenological concerns render La dolce vita, if not a film about film per se, a spectacle about spectation. Nor is La dolce vita unique, for Fellini, in its direct relation to the audience. The famous last shot of La notte di Cabiria (1957), for example, in which Giullietta Masina breaks a cardinal rule of cinema by gazing straight through the camera—into our eyes—encourages the audience to take cognizance of itself, as the meaning-making other-half of every film. In La dolce vita, Fellini moves to develop this self-consciousness by satirizing mass-spectatorship—even at the risk of alienating his own spectators.

Over the course of its three hour run-time, La dolce vita bludgeons us with distorted and fragmented images, presenting the unnatural, inhuman, even monstrous perspectives spawned (or perpetuated) by the rampant consumerism of post-war, post-modern Italy. Fellini’s use, for example, of 75-, 100-, and 150-mm lenses for camera movements imbues the whole film with subtle a fun-house mirror convexity that registers at a subconscious level (Bordanella 142). Likewise, the narrative, composed of episodic chunks separated-off by indeterminate gaps, seems to undermine the characters’ agency. In his earlier films—no matter the tortures he’s put his characters through—Fellini always ends on a note (literally, as these moments depend on a swell in Nino Rota’s score) of redemptive humanism: in La strada (1954), Zampano overcomes his brutal, mechanistic nature, shedding perhaps his first real tear—which reappears as an emblem in that last shot from La notte di Cabiria, painted on Cabiria’s cheek and amplified in close-up, as she gives her discrete nod to the camera. But does La dolce vita offer any such redemption for this all-consuming gaze, this myriad-eye? Or to phrase it another way: if Fellini condemns decadence  in every single frame of the film, does he condemn his audience, in turn, for vicariously consuming it? Critics have solidified La dolce vita‘s reputation as a crisis of faith for Fellini. As Bordanella puts it, “Catholic ritual is always spectacular…has been reduced to…mere spectacle, devoid of ethical content. La dolce vita marks Fellini’s pessimistic rejection of any hope of religious intervention in contemporary life. The only miracle possible for Fellini will be that produced by the mystery of artistic creation” (147). All well and good for the director of course, but what about us? Is it our station to loll out our tongues at “the mystery” of Fellini’s virtuosity, like the stokers in E la nave va, clapping respectfully as the opera singers compete for applause? To get at an answer to the question of our own redemption, let’s take a closer look at a few key episodes from the film in order to better understand how Fellini constructs the monstrous gaze.

Opening

It feels appropriate to start from the beginning, seeing as it foregrounds Fellini’s radical departure from his early aesthetic. The film opens on an empty field, presumably on the outskirts of a Roman suburb, flanked by ruined viaducts and framed at the far end with a goal-post. Directly above which, a pair of helicopters rotor toward the camera, the first dangling a golden statue of Jesus. Within this first shot, Fellini situates the spectator in a complex interpretive “field,” alluding simultaneously to the history of Rome (B.C. and A.D.), a modern spectator-sport, and a disparity between low-budget beginnings and the higher aspirations of the film to come. The goal-post seems to frame Fellini’s earlier, more naïve concerns: those of down-to-earth provincial life. The helicopters come from the same direction, but high above and well outside that frame: Fellini has bigger fish to fry now.

Dolce 2In the next several shots, the helicopters, reminiscent of dragonflies, travel from the periphery to the center of Rome, passing high over the suburbs under-construction. We get a vertiginous helicopter shot (exceedingly rare for Fellini) looking from above on the Christ-toting helicopter. From this dominating perspective, we regard a great swath of “real” countryside in the process of becoming cityscape. This shot would seem to represent the apex of Fellini’s neorealistic tendency: this is what Italy actually looked like in the historical moment Fellini seeks to portray, his camera laying bare an “objective” economic trend of post-war expansion. We’re presented here with a journalistic overview, prefiguring the now widespread practice of gathering news footage by means of helicopter. Yet, at the same time, Fellini subtly directs our attention toward the constructedness—the subjectivity—of this vantage-point. The camera is clearly in that second helicopter, which also happens to contain the journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) and Paparrazo (Walter Santesso), his photographer. We need only compare this shot with the sepia-tone city-map in the private detective’s office from Giulietta degli spiriti (1965), and a link between panorama and surveillance becomes apparent. And yet our (Marcello’s) view here is still framed: we’re granted only the illusion of a “whole picture.” In a (frankly dialectical) shift, we find ourselves back on the ground, looking up at the helicopters from the perspective of two laborers, assembling a structure just as Fellini has assembled the previous shot. Fellini has traversed the gap in a single cut, deftly sketching the power differential between observed (above) and observers (below). A few seconds later, this shot is echoed when a group of women look up from their apartment roof to see the helicopters flying over. Fellini cuts back and forth between the women in high-angle and the helicopter in low-angle. Not only are the women separated from the men in terms of height, they can barely hear each other over the roar of the rotors, depicting an inability to communicate, particularly across gender-lines, that will function as a motif throughout the film. Marcello’s dark bug-eye sunglasses present another barrier, hiding his gaze from its “objects”—only one of whom, note, is wearing sunglasses of her own. Later in the film, Fellini will upend this height-power differential when a pair of prostitutes gaze down from a balcony on Marcello and Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), because they’re so impotent that they require the presence of a prostitute to consummate their affair. From this distance the convex cockpit of the helicopter resembles a flashbulb or a giant hovering insect-eye, further undermining the objectivity of that earlier helicopter shot, in which a thousand lives are made to look like an anthill or termite mound. Fellini’s camera renders the journalists insects staring at down at what, to them, appear as insects. The sequence closes with another helicopter shot, as if over the shoulder of St. Peter’s Basilica—the center of Fellini’s Rome. Or rather, the false center, as becomes apparent in the wrenching cut to the next episode, which features an exotic dancer whose headgear matches graphically with the dome of St. Peter’s.

Sylvia

Sylvia (Anita Ekberg)’s arrival in Rome’s Ciampino airport functions as a counterpart to that first of sequence in La dolce vita. Whereas the film’s opening depicts (the illusion of) wholeness, this later sequence privileges fragmentation. It opens with another aircraft (the celebrity, Fellini’s “stars” in a fallen form, arrives from on-high) touching down and streaking along the runway, captured with a rapid left-to-right pan. Fellini cuts to a slower pan, this time from right to left, capturing to a crowd of photo-journalists sprinting alongside a camera-car to meet the airplane. This dialectical edit sets up an oppositional relationship between the massive airliner and the mass of photo-reporters. In a high-angle shot, these jockey for their best angle (as low and close as possible). One of Marcello’s photographers manages to climb halfway up the mobile stairway before an uniformed man drags him back down, maintaining the mystery of distance. When Sylvia emerges from the airplane, they shout at her to remove her sunglasses (also rather bug-eyed). They desire no barrier, no concealment of their object. She refuses: like Marcello, she maintains the privilege of a hidden gaze. The photographers shout for her to re-stage the “entrance” and she complies, this time dramatically throwing open her fur-cape. This highlights the artifice of publicity, the facade of authenticity: we can assume the reporters will select only the most dramatic photographs and, in the eyes of the public, these become the “reality.” Marcello arrives with Sylvia’s producer and a reception committee, as they argue over whether to give her the flowers or the pizza first. As they maneuver the pizza, a TV reporter (who will reappear in the “miracle scene”) provides a voice-over: “the beautiful Sylvia bites into a typical Italian product which, with its colors and aroma, is as joyful as our country.” His narration, sounding rather like ad-copy, conflates the pizza with the Italian countryside, as seen from Sylvia’s former bird’s eye view. This moment links back to the helicopter-shot from the film’s opening sequence, which sheds yet another layer of its seeming objectivity, as the panorama (circumscribed, like the pizza) becomes a commodity. The producer stabs another slice and inserts it in Slyvia’s face to chew for the swarming cameras, flashing constantly from every direction: each taking, as it were, a slice—a bite—of Sylvia’s person. If we think back to Lo sceicco bianco (1952), in which still images, postcards and movie-posters in particular, recur as fantasies, broken off and decontextualized from the wholeness of “reality,” each flash becomes a moment’s killing-blow. Fellini acknowledges Picasso’s cubism as an inspiration for La dolce vita, but the aggregate of these many photographs, if we imagine it, might also resemble the faceted view from an insect’s compound eye. “Great piece of meat, huh?” the TV reporter quips at Marcello, re-emphasizing how the Swedish-American actress, even as she consumes the pizza, is in turn an object for piecemeal mass-consumption. Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) will later refer to the photo-reporters as “hyenas,” turning Sylvia—fragmented into a myriad of still images—into mere carrion. In yet another scene, Robert (Lex Barker) slugs Marcello over Slyvia, the paparazzi (as we now call them) will circle the action like vultures, or more disturbingly, like guerrillas ambushing a convoy, discarding spent flashbulbs like shell-casings. Consumption, then is reciprocal, total, and totally atomizing. In our position as spectators, we’re as guilty, it seems, as Marcello’s readers.

Dolce 3In the next scene of the same episode, during an arc-lit interview, a raspy-voiced correspondent asks Sylvia, “for Cinema Nuovo, do you think Italian Neorealism is dead or alive?” Another reporter tells her to say “alive” but, clearly, in Fellini’s conception, neo-realism, like the Catholic God, is both murderous and dead. Marcello, meanwhile tries to allay his Emma’s jealousy over the telephone, telling her that Sylvia is “like a big doll.” As if to prove his point, Sylvia tries on a wig in front of a mirror framed like a miracle with brass rays (gesturing back in Fellini’s filmography to the Catholic procession in La strada with the rayed image of Madonna, and forward to the ‘miracle’ of willful artifice and self-reflexivity of ) and flanked by oriental figurines. Sylvia, the cynosure of a thousand eyes, becomes reconstructed as a secular idol. Emma threatens to rip Marcello’s eyes out, making explicit the link between the male and monstrous gaze for the first time. Following the interview, Marcello takes Sylvia to St. Peter’s Basilica. As Fellini’s camera zooms in on the structure, Nina Rota’s music for the oriental dance plays over the soundtrack. All this conflation of disparate idolatries recalls the famous montage sequence from October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928), in which Eisenstein undermines the Russian Orthodox faith and its traditional icons by juxtaposing a figure of Jesus with several deities taken from other pantheons. Sylvia, wearing the costume of a country priest and racing to the top in order to look out over the circular Piazza San Pietro, parodies the sacred space from within.

Miracle Field

The “miracle” sequence clearly echoes Sylvia’s interview, hyperbolizing it to the brink absurdity. Importantly, the sequence takes place outside Rome (where, we can assume from what we’ve so far seen, the prevailing view of Catholicism is cynical at best), and back in the countryside, where the film, and Fellini, began. When Marcello arrives on the scene, his photographers straightaway sniff out the relatives of the miracle-witnessing children and bribe them into adopting a series beatific poses for the camera. Then the photographers vanish, leaving the family frozen like statuary. Before they move Fellini cuts away, effectively freezing them there until their reappearance much later in the sequence.

As dusk falls, we get a surreal low-angle shot depicting a member of the film-crew passing overhead, wearing sunshades, his hands placed on a pair of arc-lights like giant mechanical eyes. This shot slowly fades into the next, such that a sign reading “ARGON,” lit up in the background, appears for a moment directly between the arc-bulbs. The word “argon,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary,comes from the Greek for “without work”, referring to argon’s inertness. Likewise, the spectators crowding into the field below, hoping to witness a miracle for themselves, will undergo no significant change. “A large crowd has gathered in this once deserted and unknown area,” an unidentified voice-over informs us—possibly Marcello. At first, the words correspond to the action on screen. “Among the curious there are journalists, photo reporters, and correspondents from papers all over the world. There is an innumerable number of cars piled up.” But when the voice tells us “the night is humid but full of stars,” we see only torches and arclights, not a single star—a clear sign of Fellini’s crisis of faith, given the recurrence of stars across his work. “We just found out that the two children are still held by the police,” the voice-over continues. Why should the children be held by the police? The state, it appears, has something in stake in this miracle. “We await further word from Rome.” At this point, the same TV reporter who compared Sylvia with a piece of meat, revealed to be the source of voice-over, hands a prepared script to the childrens’ “lucky uncle” to read from, completely undermining his objectivity. Marcello tells Emma the children are coming, that he’s “going up there to see something”. He climbs to the top of an arc-light scaffold, affording him an overview, a command of the scene. Low-angle shots from Emma’s perspective convey his detachment from their relationship. He can see over the heads of the crowd now, but compared to his range of vision at the beginning of the film, and at the top of St. Peter’s with Slyvia, his vantage is severely truncated.

Dolce 4The children arrive. Alone in a press of adults, they stand noticeably shorter, closer to the earth than anyone—with the exception of a couple of prostrate figures, praying for miraculous recovery. A diagetic director orders the crane-mounted cameras into action. Fellini’s camera watches these closely, tracking their upward movements and bringing them as if to life. In this moment, the crane-mounted cameras resemble long-necked dino/spider hybrids, each with four lenses for eyes. Unlike Cabiria, they never quite meet the gaze of Fellini’s camera—focusing instead on the roiling crowd of spectators. The director tells his cameraman to “put the 5000 on them [the children] and then on the crowd”, fusing the diagetic spectacle to the spectators, destined to become a spectacle themselves for a TV audience—who stand in for us. (The “5000” may refer to a telephoto lens, an extreme version of the wider lenses Fellini chose for camera movements to effect a distanced proximity). Fellini tracks past several disabled spectators who, dependent on their mechanical contraptions, seem to convey the desperation and thoroughly mediated vision of a mass-spectatorship mechanized by the “cinematic” apparatus. A police cordon struggles to hold back the crowd, to protect it from its own violent desire to merge with the spectacle, to utterly consume it and make themselves worthy of consumption. Fellini presents us here with a double-bind: the distanciated, detached, spectator (Marcello) sees more of the spectacle, at the risk of dominating what he sees and imposing upon it an illusive “objectivity” or “wholeness”—seeing the forest for the trees in other words; whereas the proximal spectator (Emma, the crowd) sees as part of the spectacle, experiencing it directly, at the risk of seeing very little—the trees for the forest. This conundrum encapsulates both concepts of the close-up, as increasing scale, or bringing closer, and the paradox of film itself.

Suddenly, rain shatters the floodlights, recalling the flood in the prostitute’s apartment and the ocean from which the monster-fish emerges at the close of the film. If we’re witness to any “act of God” here, it’s more Great Flood than miracle. After a whispered conversation, the children point to an invisible Madonna. But we get a reaction shot from Emma with an eye-line match, wearing her headscarf, next to an older woman and a younger woman also wearing headscarves. For a moment, these three become the Madonna in triptych. But Emma’s oppressively maternal from of love for Marcello is a delusion. Later, we learn that Marcello has accused her of living “in a dream, outside reality.” The crowd breaks through the police line. In the resulting chaos, a photographer holds his camera up to get a shot over the crowd—encapsulating the film-long search for height, over-view, objective detachment—and Fellini cuts on the flash. The children are evacuated, and the crowd turns on the miracle tree, tearing it to shreds for relics, just as the cameras have fragmented the spectacle, ironically, by way of preserving it. It’s difficult not to recall another important tree in Fellini’s work, the one Gelsomina mimics in La strada, and imagine her expression of down-to-earth spirituality ravaged.

Steiner

In the subsequent episode, a somewhat disillusioned Marcello attends a party of intelligentsia at his friend Steiner’s apartment, attempting, perhaps, to distance himself from the display of journalistic manipulation he’s just witnessed, as a participant, in the miracle field. The following scene presents a stark alternative to that chaos. Steiner’s wife ushers Marcello into a room dominated by a strange negative impression of a Gothic spire over the fireplace, recalling the scene in which Sylvia leads Marcello in spiraling race to the top of St. Peter’s dome, stopping only to autograph (vandalize) the wall. This painting, as we shall see, exemplifies Steiner’s worldview. From his place in front of the painting, an elderly man rattles off a catalog of chauvinism (“the oriental submits both her spirit and flesh”), and Steiner praises his “childish candor”—his puerile objectification, in other words. As we’ve just seen in the miracle sequence, Fellini’s faith even in childlike innocence has been shaken. Faithless, detached, and professional, Steiner would seem to represent this elderly man’s diametric opposite, yet both are eminently male. When Marcello remarks on his Morandi still-life, Steiner “translates” the painting into words: “the objects are flooded with a wistful light, yet painted with such a detachment, precision, rigor…almost tangible.” He might as well describe a photograph. Marcello parrots these sentiments in discussing one of the poets present (as she brushes crumbs off her sleeve), describing her work as “strong, sharp. It doesn’t seem like a woman’s writing.” In Marcello’s view, the future art must be “clear, precise…without rhetoric, that doesn’t lie, that isn’t flattering.” He, too, seems to describe photography, and more specifically, film in the neo-realist mode. Yet, as we have seen, Fellini regards realism as an illusion—as circumscribed and readily consumable as pizza pie, sectioned off into slices and reduced to crumbs. The poet then describes Steiner as “the true primitive. Primitive as a Gothic Spire. You’re so tall that you can’t hear any more voices up there.” Steiner responds by saying, “If you could see my real height, you’d see I’m not much taller than this:” he holds up his hand with about a three inch gap between thumb and forefinger.

Dolce 5We’re looking at a sublimated phallus here, intellectualized to the point of abstraction. After all, prior to his discovery of Jung during the filming of La dolce vita, Fellini underwent Freudian psycho-analysis, and his misgivings about Freud’s paternal authoritarianism clearly inform the work (Bordanella 152). Steiner is nothing of not paternalistic, at least toward Marecllo. Moreover, this scrap of dialog between the poet and Steiner, placed in the direct center of the film, sheds light on a seemingly inconsequential story Bordanella tells: “When Mastroianni asked to see the script, Flaiano gave him a stack of blank pages that contained only a drawing by Fellini of a man swimming in the sea with a gigantic penis reaching to the ocean floor, surrounded by mermaids” (143). Bordanella dismisses the drawing, even as he describes it in detail, as little more than a ribald joke on Fellini’s part. But in the context of our discussion Fellini’s drawing communicates a flash of his thematic preoccupations. This image of the “gigantic penis” recurs over and over in La dolce vita, in the form of the various spires we encounter throughout the film: the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the painting in Steiner’s apartment. As do the mermaids—in the many female characters shrouded by male fantasies of Woman as whore/Madonna. As Fellini reveals to us, spectatorship is gendered. He’s talking about the male gaze. Let’s pause a moment to consider the spire. A spire commands a landscape, isolated and detached. It embodies authority as an extension of the visual field. Steiner’s “vision,” his desire to transcend the mundane, overcompensates, in other words.

For a moment, this “masculine uncertainty” takes on an apocalyptic tone when, as the conversation plays back on a tape-recorder, a crack of thunder punctuates Steiner’s words. This, too is a recording. The “nature sounds” continue and trace a kind of narrative, progressing from thunder to waves crashing on a shoreline to birdsong and finally, wind passing through a forest. If we think back to Sylvia, whose name means “forest,” Steiner’s name, “stone,” describes his fate. For Steiner takes his desire for detachment to its absurd conclusion, succumbing to the death-drive, and taking the lives of his children with him. We might also read “stone” as the building block of a spire, a mere fragment in the whole towering structure of masculine authority. Steiner’s children appear at the threshold, awakened by the recording. Steiner praises his son, who who sees the parts of the flower and “understands that it’s beautiful.” Beauty, as perceived by the phallocentric spectator, depends on sundering the beautiful object. Again, we think of Slyvia, her person fragmented by the swarming cameras into images for public (male) consumption.

Much later in the film, after Steiner’s suicide (“a real monstrosity” according to one witness), the police take a series of forensic photos, reinforcing the age-old cinematic trope of the deathliness of still images, and play back the same recording. Now the thunder sounds rather like a tower collapsing, as we regard Steiner’s slumped form. Outside the apartment, a swarm of photographers heads off Steiner’s wife. Before she’s aware of what’s happened, she asks if they’ve mistaken her for an actress. His death makes a “celebrity” of her. Marcello’s resulting disillusionment intensifies his downward spiral. So much for Steiner’s desire to live “outside of passions, beyond emotions, in that harmony you find in completed artworks, in that enchanted order.”

Paola

Marcello’s encounter with Steiner leads him, we assume, to a bar by the seaside—always a charged location for Fellini, a liminal space between land and water. Sunlight filters in through the patio-roof, covering the scene with a delicate weave of light and shadow, as Nino Rota’s score plays on the jukebox. Perhaps Marcello has decided to try his hand again at literature, or at least to put some distance between himself and Rome. He has artificially closed that difference, however, by telephoning Emma. The call not only links this scene with Sylvia’s interview, it feels ominous in the wake of a comment Steiner makes in the previous episode, that “a telephone call can announce the end of the world.” Naturally, Marcello is arguing with Emma. Marcello orders the waitress, Paola, to turn of the music. She complies, unphased by his anger. Her hardworking, old-for-her-age adolescence makes her an interesting foil to the younger children in the film, as well as the elderly yet childish chauvinist. Marcello hangs up and returns to his typewriter, and Paulo begins humming Nino Rota’s insistent score as she sets a table. Again, Marcello vents his frustration on her and tells her to be quiet. Paola’s “helper,” a young boy, interrupts to tell her about a broken plate (almost as though Marcello were responsible), drawing our attention once again to the fragmentary—perhaps to Marcello’s broken relationship with Emma. But then, when Paulo asks him if he wants anything to eat, surprisingly, he “doesn’t know.” The broken plate and Marcello’s suppressed appetite signal a possible shift—for once, consumption has been deferred. In fact, the whole film is constructed like a broken plate, a serving platter that is nonetheless denies easy consumption. Still, Marcello’s appreciation of Paola’s beauty, enacted by the camera as it carefully tracks her movement back and forth across the patio, is difficult to classify. Is his attention sexual? Clearly, her innocence fascinates him, as he compares her to a painted angel. Does she manage to rupture through his phantasmic projections? It seems not, for in asking to see her profile, he’s trying to fit her image into a catalog of image-women, either Catholic or commercial. Still, she laughs at the ridiculousness of his comparison, and Marcello reaches a total impasse in his writing, as though blocked by Paola’s incompatibility with his ideas. Paola’s helper offers to discard his paper, and she turns Nino Rota back on. The scene ends as Marcello returns to the telephone to call Emma. No, he hasn’t changed.

Closing

Dolce 6By the end of the film, Marcello’s solipsism has only intensified. The sun rises on the aftermath of the “orgy,” in which he has feathered a drunk woman and ridden around in circles on her back, condensing the film-wide dynamic between height and power, between women and Woman as an object of male fantasy. Marcello and his fellow revelers stumble out to the beach and find a group of fishermen dragging a dead monster-fish ashore, in a net that serves as a graphic match for all the chicken wire and veils Fellini has used to symbolize (a specifically female) entrapment. “You’ll make a fortune with this fish,” enthuses one of the fishermen. “It’s worth millions!” Indeed, the fish is quite a spectacle. According another fishermen, the monster has been dead for three days (or two, depending on the translation). Given the symbolic link between Christ and fish, the monster’s imminent resurrection is one possible implication. “Is it male or female?” somebody asks. Nobody seems to have an answer. “And it insists on looking,” Marcello adds. His comment motivates an extreme close-up of the monster’s eye, a graphic match for that vertiginous moment earlier in the film when Marcello stares up from the bottom of a Dante-esque staircase outside Steiner’s apartment just as a photographer’s camera flashes at the far end. Furthermore, the monster’s eye bears a striking resemblance to a wide-angle lens—the same type Fellini has employed throughout the film to distort his images. It’s as if we’ve been watching the entire film from the monster’s perspective. And now, exhausted from our three-hour descent into Marcello’s personal hell, we too have experienced a kind of death. Are we monsters, after all? Is there any hope for resurrection, for redemption?

Fellini cuts to a long-shot of the beach, as Marcello wanders toward a strange, fence-like structure in the background, reminiscent of the goal-post in the film’s opening. Another cut, and he’s collapsed on the beach in his white suit, slouching dramatically away from an unmistakeable cross-shape in the fencing. A group of children appear and begin scaling the fence. Marcello turns around, and from his perspective, we see a small figure in black, calling out to him. Paola. She tries to convey something to him but, in a reversal of the helicopter scene, when Marcello could not make himself heard to the women on the roof below, he cannot hear her. She makes an expansive, encapsulating gesture, then points to the “cross.” At last, Marcello gives up and walks away with the party-goers, still, like argon, stubborn, inert, unchanged. In soft focus close-up Paola waves goodbye, before turning slowly to face the camera. The monster’s death has served to purify us, to set us up for Paola’s gaze, the female gaze, which redeems Marcello, the camera, us, before the fade to black. Fellini will repeat this shot as an ending once again, in E la nave va (1983), when the mechanistic gaze of the monster-fish and the reciprocating gaze of Paola merge into Fellini’s diagetic camera, tracking into Fellini’s non-diagetic camera.

William Repass is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

La dolce vita was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection.

References:

Bondanella, Peter E. The Cinema of Ferderico Fellini. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

2 Comments for “Monstrous Gaze: The Quandary of Spectatorship in La dolce vita

  1. Christopher Sharrett

    William, this is a very intelligent and enjoyable close reading of this important film.

  2. Delightful and unusual close reading, William!

    Students in my Italian postwar cinema seminar found your article very useful in beginning to grasp the depth and moral metonymy of Fellini’s films.

    My students agree with you – that among many things, La Dolce Vita is indeed a striking philosophical investigation into the nature of film spectatorship itself and visuality. Nothing brings that point home more than that all-seeing monstrous gaze of the mythical sea beast (seen at the end of the film) that stares directly at us – yes, ” it insists on looking.” I love the depthy reading you give to the beast’s gaze.

    Such a tragic film. Marcello is presented with Echo (a loving muse and an equal) in her many forms throughout the film repeatedly, but he cannot SEE her (and often cannot HEAR her) … He turns away from her – so tragically – over and over again. The potential for redemption is always alive in Fellini’s work; it’s repeatedly offered in Il Bidone, and Nights of Cabiria, even in Fellini’s short film, Marriage Agency; collected in the portmanteau, Love in the City (1957).

    Fine essay! Bravo.

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