the importance of living in the here and now
Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita has become a classic of Golden Age cinema. Released in 1960, it stars the suave Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini, an influential journalist living amongst the glitterati in Rome. Throughout the film, he searches for love and happiness in a glamorous world he believes will bring him satisfaction, and in his quest he gallivants with beautiful, wealthy, yet emotionally lost women played by screen sirens like Anita Ekberg and Anouk Aimée. The film won the 1960 Palm D’Or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Costume Design, with good reason: It was one of the sleekest, most tastefully made films that dealt with an otherwise distasteful subject. It wasn’t until I’d thought about the film a little more that I realized just how much it related to real life.
Halfway through the film, we meet Marcello’s sophisticated friend Steiner, whose spacious home, graceful wife, and loving children are the envy of the protagonist. Marcello, in turn, routinely cheats on his own overly clingy girlfriend yet cannot seem to find the love he so desperately searches for. Steiner is friendly, wealthy, and moves in a pleasant social circle. To Marcello and the audience, it seems as though he has the perfect life. During a dinner party, he takes Marcello to his children’s bedroom. As the young ones sleep Steiner shares with Marcello his dread that his children will grow up and see the world for all its horrors and injustices. As a man who presumably lived through the Second World War and has vivid memories of those turbulent times, he expresses fear of the fickle nature of peace. However, it is not until later that the audience realizes the extent of his trepidation. A few scenes after Steiner’s statement about fear, Marcello receives a call asking him to rush to Steiner’s apartment, as the latter has been found dead. Steiner had shot his two children in their sleep, and then shot himself, showing how his superficially “perfect life” was actually a well-constructed facade.
This sudden change in the course of the narrative shocked me. Despite all his privilege, Steiner not only committed suicide but also murdered his children. The film depicts this insane act as a culmination of boredom: Steiner had lamented to Marcello that his life had already been set out for him, didn’t present anything exciting or new, which is why he lived in his thoughts and worries. He just sat in his spacious, beautifully furnished apartment doing absolutely nothing. Steiner was a paranoid over-thinker, which is something I can relate to on a personal level. When I have nothing to look forward to—no new obstacle to surpass, no new challenge to take on—life becomes dull and boring. Then, when the boredom kicks in, the existential crises ensue, and it all goes downhill from there.
Everything I do, and every new challenge I try to take on, I do because it takes me further into the future and helps me slowly figure out where I want to go. But what happens when, like Steiner, we’ve reached our future and achieved everything we’ve ever wanted to achieve? What happens when we’re so used to running, climbing, and pushing ourselves that we don’t know what to do with ourselves once we’ve gotten to where we want to be? We work throughout high school to go to a good college; we work throughout college to get employed; and we work our butts off in jobs we—possibly—hate just because they pay well and will “take us somewhere.” So what happens when we’re “there” and have no other end goal in mind? Nothing new to work toward or to look forward to? What if we’re so conditioned to thinking about the future, that when we actually get there, we don’t know what to do with it?
In the end, is there really a perfect life? We all have general images of where we want to be in 20 years, whether it’s married with children in a pretty suburb, lounging back in a spacious office in a high-rise building, traveling on the road with a successful band, or whatever else one has in mind. In La Dolce Vita, Marcello wants to live the lives of movie stars and aristocrats. Through his job he gets to go to their parties and truly experience their world. However, after sleeping with multiple beautiful women and partying with influential men, he remains frustrated and dissatisfied. He is the most sought-after journalist in Rome and is treated like a VIP, yet in all the glitz and glamour he’d always been fascinated by, he still does not find what he is looking for. The end of the movie sees a drunken Marcello stumbling out of the frame with a group of famous actors and their entourage of escorts, as lost as ever. The thing that terrifies me about this ending is that his character doesn’t find a satisfying conclusion: He never seems to achieve true happiness, despite having socially and professionally gotten to where he wanted to be. What if we spend our whole lives working towards a goal, only to get there and realize that it’s not what we want at all? Does that mean that all our time and efforts have gone to waste?
I don’t have a straightforward answer to all these frustrating (and depressing) questions. However, watching Marcello’s and Steiner’s dissatisfactions made me realize that no matter how well-off you are, and no matter how happy you may seem, there is always going to be something wrong. It’s inevitable that we find ways to bitch about life or to be sad about something or another. But Fellini’s characters prove that there’s no point in perpetually worrying about the future, and there’s no use in being frustrated at not achieving every single goal you’ve envisioned for yourself. This is because your “perfect” vision for the future may not be so perfect after all.
Everyone has a sort of dolce vita (good life) in mind, but we have to remember to take life one step at a time and appreciate the dolce vita we already have. If you have air in your lungs, clothes on your back, and food on your table, then you already have a lot to be grateful for. Most of all, if you have love in your life, whether it be familial, friendly, or romantic, it’s important to appreciate it everyday. Though it was an artistically fabulous film, La Dolce Vita taught me an important life lesson. It’s fine to have goals and to aspire to an ideal because aspirations give you something to work toward. But if passion becomes obsession, you will never be satisfied. Why? Because there is no perfect life. There’s always going to be something wrong, something missing, or something lost. Wherever you go, whoever you become, you will inevitably feel lonely, confused, and a little bit hopeless, because it’s in our nature to feel these things. So stop pining after perfection that doesn’t exist. Live life while you’re here, and appreciate the beauty in the simple everyday. Once you do, you’ll realize that you, too, have a variation of la dolce vita.