One of my favorite things: Camping out in my home office, putting on a classic film I’ve never seen before, and live-posting my thoughts to the Looking Closer Specialists. Why? They’re a smart, film-literate bunch, and I end up learning from their observations. A few months ago, I live-posted my first-impressions of La Dolce Vita for them, and it led to some revealing exchanges. It’s always good to discuss a classic with viewers who know the movie better than me.

Of course, live-posting is clumsy posting. So these first impressions have been cleaned up a bit.

Ah, that famous opening shot — Jesus on the cross, flown across the city like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloon.

I know this shot not because I’ve seen it before, but because I’ve seen it spoofed before… most effectively in Steve Martin’s L.A. Story, when a hot dog is helicoptered over Los Angeles.

The rest of this film will be Christ-haunted. He’ll hover over everything. Is that what Fellini intended? Probably not. But that doesn’t matter. It’s what the film does, not what the filmmaker intends, that matters.

Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), getting out of the car and leaning against a retaining wall, strikes me as quite possibly the inspiration for all of those glorious Christopher Doyle shots of Maggie Cheung leaning against the alley wall in Wong’s In the Mood for Love. 

If so… thank you, Fellini.

You need friends in high places these days,” says the woman who leads Marcello down into her flooded apartment.

Uh-huh. What did I tell you?

Already I’m noticing the prominence of stairways and transparent barriers (curtained windows, glass walls, maze-like divisions and barriers). They ways we separate ourselves from one another. The crazy paths that we, like Marcello (Marcello Matroianni), carve for ourselves in a world that doesn’t look up.

Driving Emma to get help after her suicide attempt, Marcello arrives at the bottom of a long stairway. The camera pans up to find a nun waiting at the top: Friends in high places, eh?

A press agent, reporting on the arrival of a glamorous Swedish film star at an airport, says as an aside, “Nice piece of meat, eh?”

The paparazzi were clearly as beastly then as they are now.

(Is it true that the word actually comes from the photographer named Paparazzo in this film?)

I love how, in the “press conference” for Sylvia, the pin-up blonde actress from America — Conference? It’s really just a bunch of drooling idiots asking stupid questions — somebody asks if she thinks Italian neorealism is alive or dead. And she looks as though she has no idea what that means.

It’s a moment that’s all too depressingly realistic.

While Marcello’s infidelity is portrayed as a moral failing, Emma’s feelings about her man’s betrayal make her look awfully pathetic. This has the unnerving effect of making Marcello hold on to his appeal in spite of his behavior.

Poor Yvonne Furneaux. It must have been exhausting to play this hysteria.

What a great long shot of Emma, anxiously talking on the phone while sitting on the edge of her bed, down a long hallway where buckets of paint and brushes and newspaper sit neglected.

Aaaaand we’re ascending another stairway. In a church.

Shhh,” says Sylvia (Anita Ekberg). “We’re in a church.

Marcello, trying to look cool, is chasing the actress upstairs, looking for his moment. There are disorienting, vertiginous effects as we follow his ascent, while the bells ring. Is this meant to be a blatant homage to Vertigo? Hitchcock’s masterpiece opened two years before this movie. Seems plausible.

“You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You’re mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, earth, home. That’s what you are: home. Why did you come here? Go back to America please? What will I do now?”

So… America gets the blame for Sylvia, the mother of all temptations.

When Sylvia starts leading everyone around the party in a parade, I’m flashing forward to the inanity of the circus parade, the line dance of fools, at the end of 8 1/2.

Already, at this point of the film, I’m pretty sure I’m going to end up preferring 8 1/2.

I love how, when Sylvia leaves the party, Marcello goes after her carrying her shoes… underlining that this is all an illusion, and the magic could vanish at the stroke of midnight. But it’s a reversal of the values of Cinderella — in this case, the magic spell is a dream of vanity. And in this case, the coach will not carry the princess back down to earth, but just further into the maze of fame.

A great moment: Marcello, the morning after his frolic in the fountain with Sylvia (and his subsequent beating from Robert), goes into a cathedral and hears someone whisper his name.

His first instinct is to look up.

… And, of course, he is invited up. Up to meet the padre: Another friend in high places.

Steiner: “As you see, these priests don’t fear the devil.

Steiner on the cathedral organ: “Sounds we’re not used to hearing anymore. Like a mysterious voice from deep within the earth.

Marcello envies the man with the family, the home, the stability, the maturity, the apparent success. But…

“The answer isn’t being locked up at home. Don’t do what I’ve done. The most miserable life is better, believe me, than an existence protected by a society where everything’s organized and planned for and perfect.”

This speech. Oh man.

“Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weigh on me. It’s peace that frightens me. I fear peace more than anything else. It seems to me it’s just a facade with hell hiding behind it.”

Look up, dude.

“One should live beyond passion and emotion in the harmony found in perfect works of art, in that enchanted order. We should learn to love one another, to live outside of time, detached. Detached.”

Wow, what a speech.

The seemingly successful man, whom Marcello admires, who has a house and a family and means and sophistication, who seems to have achieved any ambitions Marcello might once have had… even this man is dissatisfied with his circumstances.

He senses that art is reflecting what is missing. (Is it making “sounds like we’re not used to hearing anymore”?)

But I’m intrigued by his suggestion that the answer is in detachment. Surely it isn’t. Love requires the opposite of detachment. And this whole film is full of vigorous, visceral, bodily love.

And yet… and yet… this speech follows so hard upon his words about art, I wonder if I’m interpreting him correctly. (Maybe something is lost in translation.) It’s true that beauty is, in a way, indifferent — it gives and gives to the just and the unjust; it is a wild expression of God’s grace. (Simone Weil writes about this.) I wonder if what he’s referring to isn’t exactly detachment from life, but perhaps detachment from fear and circumstantial concerns.

Heading into Spoiler territory now:

I was startled to full attention by the grim turn of events near the film’s conclusion — the circumstances involving the demise of three characters. I wasn’t sure what to expect after that. And what happened was, yes, entirely unexpected. Just another party? Really?

Ah, but this one brings out the worst in Marcello — he’s going to pieces. Faced with mortality, he knows that the path he has chosen offers no consolation, no meaning, no hope.

The finale on the beach … I’m not quite sure yet what to make of it.

The young Lolita-like woman calling to Marcello seems to suggest both an invitation back toward innocence, but also an invitation toward the most severe kind of error he could make.

So, as he walks away, he seems to be in purgatory, unable to take a path toward redemption or a path toward ultimate destruction… and, frankly, unable to tell which of those two the offered route represents. The path toward the girl might actually represent innocence, but at this point, isn’t any direction that Marcello goes corrupt merely by virtue of his incurably depraved intent?

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