Fellini's La Dolce Vita and Antonioni's L'Avventura were the dawn of the Italian New Wave in 1960, movies about the decadence, glamour and emptiness of middle class life. Placed side by side, they're a portrayal of Rome after the post-World War II economic boom, which led to a new distribution of leisure time for the privileged.
Antonioni's world is stark, cold, confounding, and filled with dead end corners. Fellini's world is more like a circus -- and while his characters are no less doomed than Antonioni's, coming face to face with a great emptiness underneath the glamour, they'll drown with pasted smiles on their faces, dancing the conga.
Charming Marcello Mastroianni (as a member of the paparazzi - the film's character "Paparazzo" is the origin of the word) wanders around the city of Rome flirting with all sorts of girls, ranging from back-alley whores to glamorous movie stars such as the lovely Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) as his current lady friend stays home moping. He figures a chance to wade around in some fountain with his dream date is worth a punch in the nose from his jealous lover.
Too bad it all means nothing. Federico Fellini's world is a joy to behold, filled with vitality, but also deceptively banal. Nothing much happens in the film, even with all that activity. That's why La Dolce Vita encourages repeated viewings, taking Rome either as a terrifying trap to swallow the unwary or a carnival ride worth riding.
Then we return to that momentous scene on the beach with Marcello falling on his knees. Decked out in a dapper white suit and black shirt, he looks great. His hair's a little tousled. He's had a rough night and maybe too much to drink. Much has happened to him by the end of the movie, and we wonder if it has changed him at all. In his small exchange with the girl across the way (where we only hear the sound of the waves), Fellini gives us all the information we need.
The beautiful, subtle, poetic conclusion with Marcello on a beach offering an elaborate mimed shrug is a wonderful moment, exemplary of the film. Is he happy or sad, or a little bit of both? Whatever he is, I could not help but be touched by the gesture and enjoyed hanging around with this guy for almost three hours.
The new and highly-anticipated Vita DVD includes two full discs, with commentary from writer Richard Schickel, introduction from director Alexander Payne, a collection of Fellini short films (made for Italian TV), and extensive retrospective and archival footage of the making of the film. Highly recommended.
Update: The Collector's Edition DVD set includes all the features on the prior disc plus a third disc of bonus materials, including a documentary on composer Nino Rota, a 2004 interview with Ekberg, and additional archival footage. It all somes packaged in an oversized case, complete with an envelope of still photos from the film. Amazing set!