Sweet Smell of Excess: Fellini’s Ethical Society Reporting


Fellini may be the most dated and retrospectively overinflated of the new wave era’s headline acts, but La Dolce Vita (1960) is still a potent, expressionistic launch into post-war Euro-emptiness that shares a rarely acknowledged helix with Antonioni’s L’Avventura, released later that year. Outlandishly fashionable in its day thanks to the very decadence it critiques, the movie is almost Chayefsky-esque in its desolate portrait of a self-disgusted “society” reporter (Marcello Mastroianni) as he wanders in and out of the Roman celebrity-royalty-publicity swampland. Hardly just bourgeois target practice, Fellini’s movie focuses on what had become of pop culture after fascism. The satirical attack lets Vita bloom into a living nightmare whose primary source of horror was the manner in which gossip, stardom, and entertainment media had laid siege to the world consciousness.

Disingenuous, perhaps, given Fellini’s soon-to-be-apparent weakness for showbiz sawdust and tinsel. But in one movie, at least, the ethical baseline (heisted, you could argue, from Sweet Smell of Success) gave Fellini’s roaming, cluttered mise-en-scène a chilling gravity he could never genuinely locate again. La Dolce Vita‘s welcome cynicism was powerfully influential, at least here—open season was declared on official cultural industries in so many films (The Manchurian Candidate, Medium Cool, The Long Goodbye, Network, etc.) that it became an American new wave motif.