There’s no definitive turning point in the history of the movies; the medium is constantly in flux, always mutating with changes in technology and audience sensibilities. Still, were I somehow forced—by whom, I’m not really sure—to identify the birth date of Modern Cinema, I might blurt out “May 15, 1960.” This was the day that Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura premiered to an openly hostile crowd at the Cannes Film Festival. Booing movies is a time-honored tradition at the most prestigious of film fests, where plenty of future classics have been greeted with knee-jerk derision. Even by those standards, however, the response to Antonioni’s glacially paced anti-drama was toxic—enough so, in fact, to drive both the director and his lead actress, Monica Vitti, to flee the auditorium in distress. My favorite anecdote about this infamous screening: During a particularly protracted long shot, members of the audience began shouting “Cut!” at the screen, as if they could somehow shame the movie into finally switching angles.
Today, it’s hard to fathom a viewer at Cannes openly jeering a lengthy single take; it would be like going to Bonnaroo and complaining about an impromptu jam session. But while L’Avventura was hardly the first movie to drastically draw out the space between cuts, its deliberately… deliberate rhythms were fairly uncommon in 1960, even within so-called “art cinema.” What that irate audience was really responding to, however, was not how the film was shot, but what it was depicting (or not depicting).
L’Avventura, about a young woman who goes missing during a boating trip, radically upends narrative conventions, presenting a missing-person mystery and then slowly but surely letting on that it has no intention of actually solving it. The film uses viewers’ knowledge of cinematic conventions, innate or otherwise, against them: It opens with a sustained medium shot of the woman who will go missing, Anna (Lea Massari), which implicitly positions her as the heroine. It then proceeds to lose track of (and interest in) her, just as the other characters do, and slows to a hypnotic crawl while the suspense drains from the narrative like air from a balloon. Antonioni should have been better prepared for the vitriol. He made a movie that intentionally confounds and frustrates its audience. The boos were proof that his experiment had worked.
Notably, L’Avventura was not the only 1960 movie to pull a protagonist fake-out. A month later, in New York, Alfred Hitchcock played a similar prank on unsuspecting moviegoers, getting them invested in the plight of a pretty bank teller and then abruptly—and to the strains of staccato violins—cutting the apparent narrative to ribbons. Psycho, like Antonioni’s movie, didn’t play by the rules. And there was a lot of that going around in world cinema at the time. In a two-part video essay, filmmaker and critic Scout Tafoya singles out 1960 as a crucial transitional time for the movies, going on to trace some of the seismic changes in the medium to that year’s Cannes. “The 1960 Cannes Film Festival presented a medium at war with its own restrictions,” he notes. “Slowly, artists from all over the world would break rank and begin working in an unrecognizable new style.”
Certainly, there was no shortage of iconic, risk-taking talent in attendance. The 1960 festival drew a who’s-who of important filmmakers of the era, from Luis Buñuel to Grigoriy Chukhray to Ingmar Bergman, the latter of whom called Cannes a “place of meat market and mental humiliation” in a strongly worded letter. (Unbeknown to him, the festival was about to become even more of a “meat market,” as the buying and selling frenzy of the Cannes Market—now held in the basement of the Palais—officially began in 1960.) The vital cinema didn’t end with the competition lineup; rather famously, Jean-Luc Godard was invited to screen his own rule-breaking milestone, Breathless, at the festival—though it wasn’t officially selected, possibly because it had opened in France a few weeks earlier. Even the voting bloc was heavy on heavy-hitters, with Belgian novelist and word-machine Georges Simenon heading a jury made up predominately of writers, including a reportedly derelict-in-his-duties Henry Miller.
At this especially lively Cannes, where each screening seemed to subject attendees to a new transgression of form or content, L’Avventura may have been the boldest divergence from tradition. Embarrassed on behalf of their fellow attendees, and determined to salvage the savaged reputation of the film, a group of artists—among them fellow Italian director Roberto Rossellini—lent their signatures to a petition in support of the work, calling for another screening and distancing themselves from the loud hisses of disdain. L’Avventura ended up winning a special award, one that cited its “new movie language” and “the beauty of its images.” Kieron Corless and Chris Darke write about this vindication in their book Cannes: Inside The World’s Premier Film Festival: “The adventure of L’Avventura at Cannes in 1960 meant that the festival could henceforth lay claim to the crucial attribute of being a place where new tendencies in film language and new waves of film production could be discovered and defended. The idea of the festival as promoter of ‘a certain idea of cinema’ was being born.”
That last idea is one I’ve frequently echoed in this space, championing the importance of Cannes as an annual tastemaker and an encourager of fresh cinematic trends. But here’s the thing: When it came time to actually bestow top honors on a movie, Simenon’s jury chose not the bewildering deviation of Antonioni’s big breakthrough, but the far more palatable work of a different Italian director.
Superficially speaking, La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s seriocomic tour of a decadent Roman nightlife, shares a little in common with L’Avventura. Beyond their mutual country of origin, both films eschew plot in favor of roaming and rambling, focus on characters who spend most of their screen time on the go, and investigate the existential malaise of the bored and wealthy. But whereas L’Avventura gains its power from the almost perverse disregard for what the audience might instinctively demand—resolution, character development, act structure, normal notions of drama—La Dolce Vita is as conventionally entertaining as it is important. Not for nothing does it remain one of the most successful foreign-language films to ever open in America. Its pleasures translate smoothly across cultures.
A diatribe disguised as a bacchanal, or perhaps vice versa, La Dolce Vita takes place in the streets and nightclubs of Rome, over a handful of wild evenings and sober mornings. Our guide through this decadent nocturnal world is Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s male muse), a gossip columnist who wields the power of the press like a bargaining chip. While his acquaintances (not friends; there are few real friendships in this movie) vie for mentions in print, Marcello uses his clout to woo women, the debutantes and movie stars who cross his path. He also has a fiancée, played by Yvonne Furneaux, whom he generally treats—in the parlance of Ben Affleck’s Gone Girl character—“like the highway patrol, to be outmaneuvered and avoided.” His closest companion, perhaps, is Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), one of several shamelessly invasive shutterbugs that move in clicking swarms, orbiting celebrities like flies around a scrap of carrion. Yes, this is where the word “paparazzi” comes from.
The film is episodic, built as it is around a loose succession of binges and hangovers—a long party, a dalliance with a Hollywood starlet, a visit from the hero’s estranged father. Excepting one bleak incident that occurs toward the end, the sequence of events seems mutable: The narrative would scarcely change if some of the scenes were flopped, though the flow might. This is by design, of course. La Dolce Vita, whose bitterly ironic title translates to The Sweet Life, is a portrait of empty cycles and spiritual stasis. Its hero is a man whose existence is a series of brief highs, free of deeper meaning or lasting satisfaction.
Thankfully, said hero is played by Mastroianni, a screen idol riffing elegantly on his own image and celebrity. La Dolce Vita succeeds because of this star turn, this soulful rendering of soullessness. Marcello is slick but weary, cool but pathetic, instantly likable but prone to behavior that’s just north of despicable. He’s the romantic ideal of a cad—the type of smooth but secretly unhappy womanizer to which young men sometimes aspire. (Ten lira says Henry Miller threw his weight behind this movie when it came time to vote.) Mastroianni’s greatest gift to the role is the fickle hints of self-awareness he affords it. Several scenes find him inching toward an eureka moment, a corner he might turn in the pursuit of something better. Then the character retreats, back into the fugue state of an endless party. Look at the moment where he professes his love to one of his mistresses through an echo chamber. The words sound sincere, but they’re being delivered into a void—and quickly, Marcello has set his sights on another conquest.
More than 50 years since it won the Palme, La Dolce Vita seems to have achieved full canonization, secure in its status as the consensus favorite in Fellini’s oeuvre. The movie contains, for sure, some of his most iconic imagery: the opening scene of the Christ statue being helicoptered around Rome; the famous shot of Anita Ekberg (essentially playing herself, as many of the actors are) splashing around in the fountain; the climactic spectacle of that monstrous fish, being ogled and prodded by the gaggle of shallow aristocrats. But is it really the director’s finest hour? He made more poetic films, like La Strada, and more personal ones, like Amarcord, and more affecting ones, like The Nights Of Cabiria. 8 1/2, the other Fellini film most often graced with the “m” word, similarly pivots around encounters with women, while reaching for big truths about the creative process and affording Mastroianni a richer character to play.
What La Dolce Vita has going for it—and what may well have clinched it the Palme—is the presence of a capital-S statement. The Vatican famously condemned the movie, presumably because of that prologue featuring the Christ statue, but the message was clearly being lost on His Holiness. In its moral outrage, the film is practically a sermon itself, Fellini’s lament for the debased soul of contemporary society. That it’s not a tedious bore is thanks to the slightly ironic nature of its construction—the fact, in other words, that much of the behavior Fellini is clearly denouncing is pretty entertaining to witness. Somber dismay about the gadfly life aside, La Dolce Vita sometimes feels like eavesdropping on a great, lively party; that it grows less fun and more depressing as it reaches for the three-hour mark is likely intentional. Like Marcello, we eventually get worn down by all this excess.
Because relentless pursuit of celebrity never goes out of fashion, neither has loving La Dolce Vita, a movie whose blunt, simple thesis will remain relevant as long as there are fame junkies jostling for a place behind or in front of the candid camera. What more appropriate choice could jurors have made at Cannes, where glamour and unglamorous artistry rub elbows, and one can steal a live glimpse of a movie star and then watch her lambast her own impossible decadence on-screen? But Fellini’s film, for all its enduring popularity, didn’t reconfigure the soul of art cinema the way Antonioni’s open-ended mystery did. In retrospect, the latter was the true revelation, a movie so different from what came before it that the audience reacted with blinding, irrational rage. La Dolce Vita sniped at modern life. L’Avventura helped create modern cinema. Maybe the right choice only looks obvious with hindsight.
Did it deserve to win? Put me down on #TeamAntonioni. The Virgin Spring, one of Bergman’s most harrowing dramas, would have made for a fine alternative choice, too.
Next up: Palme Thursday returns in January with thoughts on Fahrenheit 9/11.