The Art of Longing: La Dolce Vita and Uncut Gems

[Written by Josh Ilan]

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita follows tabloid journalist Marcello Rubini as he navigates a decadent Rome in search of meaning. His setting is one of fleeting excesses, an attitude permeated by the upper-class life he surveys and falls prey to.  On the other hand, the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems is located in downtown New York, where jeweler Howard Ratner lives for the pursuit of money to fuel his lifestyle and addiction; superseding the need to settle his debts and family strife. Although nearly 60 years separates the two films, they both depict protagonists in a state of longing for more in worlds defined by excess.

Their respective longings are captured by their film’s structures. La Dolce Vita presents a loose examination of the Seven Deadly Sins, highlighting the absence of meaning in Marcello’s world. Contrastingly, Howard’s captivation of excess is reflected through the structure of a basketball match, matching the intensity and pace of this sport. Halfway through both films, the characters are momentarily taken out of the habits that envelop them. Marcello finds himself writing at a seaside restaurant, the only time he actively attempts to reach the higher way of living he craves, as he is shown working on his novel. Concurrently, Howard is at a family meal celebrating the Jewish festival of Passover, a holiday that commemorates thew Jewish Exodus from Egypt freedom from slavery. As both of them find themselves in the chain of modernity, these moments offer them an exit out of longing – through their work and family respectively – towards a higher form of meaning. However, the fleeting nature of these moments shows how neither character pursues this, choosing a world of external excess over internal contentment.

The heightened realism of their worlds emphasise the conflicts Marcello and Howard face. As a journalist, Marcello is rendered an observer to life, following the flow of his world’s opulent streams. The opening scene shows him in a helicopter carrying a statue of Jesus over Rome, the god’s view symbolizing his existential struggle between living a sacred life or a decadent one in a world where meaning is debauched. The juxtaposition of imagery is paralleled in Uncut Gems, opening on the cultivation of the treasured opal, segueing into Howard having a colonoscopy via the passage of iridescent lights. By conflating the opal and Howard, this shows how they are intrinsically linked, despite the foreshadowing of the detriment this will have on his health. The heightened nature of their realities is mirrored through the films’ scores situating the characters within their place and time. Fellini’s oft-used composer Nino Rota presented a score with chic, jazzy undertones, emphasising the opulence of the high society Marcello is surrounded by.  This genre’s lack of linearity and improvised nature reflects his unrestricted freedom, presenting a paradox as this fuels Marcello’s longing for a more purposeful life. Oneohtrix Point Never’s tense composition for Uncut Gems, however, underlines how we live in an electronic world where we are merely cogs in its system, acting mechanically on our own impulses. This wiring makes Howard’s capitalist endeavors not only representative of his psyche, but of the times.

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Despite their shared longing, the protagonists are contrasted by their characterisation through Marcello’s passivity and Howard’s frenetic energy. Marcello conducts his actions with an air of apathy, feeling his life choices are beyond his control. The film’s famous scene sees him commandeered by Swedish-American actress Sylvia into the Trevi Fountain for a romantic embrace. A fountain, too, symbolises Howard’s lack of internal control. Following a botched auction, where his scheme to have his father-in-law drive up the price blows up in his face, the henchman Phil punches Howard and throws him into a fountain as this means his debts cannot be repaid yet.  Through disregarding all sense of consequence and danger, Howard’s myopic and impulsive stubbornness contrasts Marcello, who moves with thought rather than action. The directors’ use of setting to depict the flaws of their characters displays their neorealist instincts. Whilst Fellini is noted for his earlier films holding a neorealist inclination, namely I Vitelloni, the Safdie Brothers’ neorealist tendencies stem from influence; with Josh Safdie proclaiming Bicycle Thieves, an early Italian neorealist work, as one of his favourite films. Their casting of professional and non-professional actors as heightened versions of themselves reflect this; most significantly shown through their actorial choice of protagonists, with Marcello Mastroianni and Adam Sandler providing warmth and depth to their harsher, more nonchalant exteriors. Whereas Mastroianni adds composure and charisma to Marcello’s characterisation, Sandler provides Howard with a boundless energy and comedic edge, both adding sympathetic layers to flawed characters.

Both characters look at life through the tunnel vision of their solipsistic desires, represented by the neglect of their loved ones. Although in a relationship with Emma, Marcello is a womaniser who finds himself in the company of multiple potential companions. When Emma is taken to the hospital after having an overdose, his initial concern is overtaken by his lustful desires, as he leaves the room to call Maddalena, an heiress whom it is hinted that he had sex with earlier on. The slower pacing of the film displays how Marcello is stuck in a pendulum of love and lust, whereas Howard’s abdication of responsibility is heightened by the film’s fast pace through its sharp dialogue and intense action. He is estranged from his wife Dinah, owning a bachelor home where his mistress Julia resides. Having to stop off there one night with his son Eddie reluctantly in tow, Eddie inadvertently discovers the affair, to which Howard swears him to secrecy. The father and son relationship displayed here is defined as one of continuation. When Eddie tries to win his father’s approval as they watch a Boston Celtics match together, it is through himself winning money on the game too, showing the passage of traits from Howard to his son.  Marcello’s personality is also inherited from his father. When his father comes to visit, he offers a more extroverted version of Marcello’s traits, through his womanising and free-spirited form of living, with the physical toil this eventually has on him representing the deleterious effects this lifestyle has on one’s health.

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Their state of longing is compounded by the necessity to uphold status within their societies. La Dolce Vita is noted for coining the term ‘paparazzi,’ symbolising how those in the public sphere are regarded as public property. It is in this world where Marcello ranks highly, but is dissatisfied with the integrity of his profession. This leads him towards Steiner, a philosophical intellectual who embodies all Marcello desires. However, he too yearns for a more spiritual way of life over a materialistic one, evoking a Kierkegaardian sense of either/or, where one can never be satisfied with their life if there are alternative lives they could be living. Whilst Steiner acts as a warning to Marcello’s desires, Demany in Uncut Gems acts as a conduit to Howard’s, providing contact to celebrities to buy his products. Whereas Marcello has doubts about his placement in the world, Howard is more overt in showing he belongs to his setting. When Demany takes him to retrieve his opal from NBA legend Kevin Garnett, Howard’s first instinct is to demonstrate his basketball skills, thus being denied entrance to see Garnett when Demany goes on without him due to his showiness. Howard’s story is aphoristic: the more serious he tries to be seen, the more he becomes a figure of comic bemusement. The costume choices of the protagonists emphasises their status. Marcello is a stylishly dressed, professional looking image of cool, with his tailored suits and dark sunglasses affirming how he presents himself as a serious individual. Contrastingly, Howard is a man who seeks to define himself by his excess, with his ears studded with diamonds and his hands adorned with an array of rings. This is played out in farcical fashion where, in one scene at his shop, he wanders around in an inside-out designer shirt with the tag still showing.

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The mise-en-scène affirms their placement within their worlds and how this entraps them. La Dolce Vita is steeped in a vast setting of luxurious rooms, clubs, and castles, where everything is enlarged, heightening how the environments loom over Marcello. Sitting alone in a minimally ornate room at an aristocrat’s castle, Maddalena asks him to marry her through an echo chamber. The centrally framed Marcello avoids answering her question by affirming his love for her instead; with the surrounding shadows and harsh lighting displaying that he is not just trapped by setting, but his own inhibitions. Whilst La Dolce Vita leaves space unfilled to heighten the sparseness of the setting, Uncut Gems utilises space offers an illusion of grandness. Howard owns a gaudy jeweller’s room clamped with claustrophobia, signifying how he cannot contain his excess. Its entrance is fraught with flaws, which is something Howard capitalises on, using them to trap his debtors to ensure they do not get his bet cancelled. With the debtors framed sitting down confined on the floor of a dimly lit room, Howard is given a rare moment of empowerment over his opposition, as he marches around the space of his office with a fluorescent light beaming around him.A traditional three-act structure sees the protagonist change, having seen the error of their ways. These films counter this by showing Marcello and Howard’s resolution to stay the same, with deadly consequences. La Dolce Vita offers a metaphorical death, showing how a visibly aged Marcello succumbed to a life of unbridled excess. Having ended up at a beach after a night of partying, he spots the girl whom he compared to an angel when writing at the seaside standing on the other side. Instead of heeding her call towards a more rewarding life that is harder to attain, Marcello decided to choose the path of least resistance of continuing his decadent existence by following his fellow partygoers. The use of a wide-shot to show Marcello walking off into the distance emphasises this poignancy, showing how he cannot be separated from his environment, despite its insignificance and his insignificance within it. A refracted close-up, however, is used in Uncut Gems to display Howard’s demise in a literal sense. Having achieved his desire, through winning a major bet that would cover his debts and lifestyle, he is then immediately shot dead by Phil in his jeweller’s shop. As he lies there, the mirror image shows how his life cannot be separated from the excess that surrounded him; with the now ransacked shop emphasising the futility of his longing. Both films display that it is easier to have a sweet life than a virtuous one, and that it is easier to stay the same rather than attempt to change, despite the perilous consequences of a cycle of continuation.

Essays

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