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The Spleen of Rome: Mourning Modernism in Fellini's La dolce vita
Fellini described in strikingly contrary terms his attempt in La dolce vita to reconfigure plot or narrative construction as a work both of deconstruction and recomposition: "We have to make a statue, break it, and recompose the pieces. Or better yet, try a decomposition in the manner of Picasso. The cinema is narrative in the nineteenth-century sense: now let's try to do something different." 1 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. We can reopen the question of the modernist status of this masterpiece by examining its paratactic narrative structure.
T. J. Clark has recently proposed that one of the most important manifestations of modernism has been the Italian cinema from the period of Neorealism through the 1960s. 2 Moreover, critics such as John Orr and Fredric Jameson have generally identified the period from the late 1950s through the 1960s as the heyday of the modernist or "neo-modernist" sensibility in sound film. 3 In their view, Fellini's classic works La dolce vita and 8&1/2 should qualify as exemplars of this sensibility, if only by virtue of the films' production and release dates. Yet Fellini's appropriation of the art-historical qualifier "Cubist" ought to alert us to the paradoxical nature of his aspiration. For if the critical periodization is correct, the development of a viable modernist vocabulary in sound film coincides historically with the abandonment of modernist aesthetics in other fields. Because modernism emerges belatedly in sound films, the director-auteur must struggle with the contradiction inherent in the attempt to [End Page 201] renew the modernist language game at a moment when its basic figures and tropes have been eviscerated by literature and the visual arts. Fellini's awareness of this dilemma helps to explain the melancholic pathos of La dolce vita.
In this essay, I will approach the film as both an exposition and an instance of the exhausted modernist aesthetic prevalent in Italy at the moment of the "economic boom." In this film Fellini revisits the canonical topoi of modernism in order to stage allegorical scenes that bid farewell to such topics. Accordingly, my discussion will focus on unrealized episodes from the screenplay which I believe reflect Fellini's fixation with the figure of the modernist intellectual. In addition, I hope to suggest how the modernism exemplified in La dolce vita compares to the modernisms of other artistic media from painting to music to architecture. We might want to observe, for example, that Nino Rota's celebrated theme music for the movie is a near-plagiarism of Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife." 4 An auteur such as Antonioni might seem more committed to the exploration of modernism, given his celebrated cinematic appropriation of the visual techniques of abstract painting and the narrative techniques of the nouveau roman. However, in the 1960s Fellini's oeuvre became more self-reflexive, ironic, and fragmentary in style in comparison to the luminous phenomenological explorations of La strada, Il bidone, and Le notti di Cabiria in the 1950s. By turning away from a realist cinematic vocabulary, Fellini's films of the 1960s sponsored a powerful mythologization of modern urban life, a mythologization that does not rule out a dramatic awareness of the obsolescence of the modern Zeitgeist.
In La dolce vita we encounter an array of slippery concepts such as modernism, neo-modernism, and postmodernism, concepts that become even more ambiguous when applied to cinema. 5 Studies of the relationship between cinema and modernism customarily begin with an examination of the masterpieces of the silent cinema directed by Murnau, Lang, and Eisenstein. The silent era is regarded as an "age d'or" insofar as the early cinema emerges as a modernist idiom in synchronicity with the other arts, an idiom that would...