Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Morphing of Fellini

In the final scenes of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), the journalist, Marcello Rubini, (played by Marcello Mastroianni) has gone with a crowd of revellers to the beach near Rome to greet the dawn. His face shows the ravages of the all-night saturnalia he has attended, which clearly depicted the decadent lifestyle led by him and his companions. As they walk along the seaside in first light, Marcello glimpses across an estuary a young girl with her family, a girl he had met earlier in another context. The beautiful girl is the absolute image of innocence and purity. He calls to her across the intervening water. She recognizes him. She puts her hand up to her ear. She can’t hear because of the roaring of wind and the waves pounding the shore. She calls to him. He can’t hear her either. Eventually, faced with the impossibility of communicating with this figure of innocence, he shrugs his shoulders, gives up and rejoins his dissolute friends.

In the final scene of Fellini’s later major film, Fellini Satyricon (1969), Encolpio, the main character who has been exploring the degraded and dissolute world that was imperial Rome, is heading to the seashore with a young black friend. They hope to catch a sailing ship, whose masts and rigging can be glimpsed projecting above the sand dunes, and thence travel away to new worlds hopefully untouched by the decadence, depravity, and corruption of Rome. They long to begin life anew. As they walk, they pass a number of older patrician men sitting in rows on the benches of a small outdoor amphitheatre. All these men are staring straight ahead at the camera and chewing, chewing, chewing. The looks on their faces appear blank and debauched. They are consuming the corpse of their colleague who has died. He was a powerful landowner who willed that his associates could only inherit his holdings if they actually consumed his flesh after death. So, in their hunger for wealth, they are willing to debase themselves entirely. Meanwhile, we see the pair of young friends walking past, the lithe black man dancing and gambolling about, and shouting, ‘Vita! Vita! Vita!’.

The difference in these two endings seems to signal a significant change in Fellini’s view of the world. In both films, he explores decadence: first in modern Rome and then in ancient Rome. Both films end at the seashore. However, La Dolce Vita (the irony of the title is noteworthy) appears to conclude with a clearly negative, perhaps even nihilistic, image – his character’s inability to communicate with the world of innocence and life. The journalist shrugs his shoulders and gives up, his voice swallowed in the turbulence of wind and wave. He is lost in the tumult of life. On the other hand, in Fellini Satyricon, although he has again explored debauchery and decadence to the full, even noting the cannibalism of the patricians, Fellini ends with a life-affirming shout to the heavens.

In the final shot of Fellini Satyricon, one of the most beautiful conclusions in film, the little sailing vessel and the two young characters morph into still images of an ancient fresco on a wall. The message is clear yet subtle: these two vital young men escaped, sailing away into a world more innocent and humane, full of promise and possibility. A world full of life.

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