the cinematography of la dolce vita: that’s deep, man

I’ve got an essay coming on La Dolce Vita for the Brattle Theatre Film Notes blog — I’ll add a link when they put it up. The Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog just posted my essay about La Dolce Vita, but I also wanted to post these great screen grabs that show how damn satisfying the cinematography is and the incredible use of depth.

If you want the tl;dr version of this post, just look at these two compositions, which are the opening shots of their respective scenes:

Either one of these shots is near-perfect on its own, but they’re even better put side by side like this, because you can see the echoes: The top one is almost all white, the bottom almost all black; the top shot has a vanishing point somewhere on the right half; the bottom’s is at approximately the mirror point on the left.

That’s just a taste of La Dolce Vita‘s great compositions. I’ll just talk here a little about three shots spread across the movie that all share two things. First, they’re all tracking shots that move to the left or right, and are almost perfectly perpendicular to the action. Second, they each have a mix of action, objects, and structures at varying depths (i.e., distances from the camera), creating a magnificent layered effect.

The first of these shots comes when Anita Ekberg leads a bunch of people off of the dance floor on a little jaunt around the ruins (?) where they’re partying:

If that middle screen grab looks out of place, it’s only because the black tent has obscured the party-goers almost entirely, but as the camera tracks further right in step with the dancers, they reappear. In that bottom screen shot, you can see them again, but now with a little table in the foreground partially obscuring them.

Later, a scene establishes that a pair of children has seen visions of the Madonna. A big crowd has gathered and various cameramen have set up shop with scaffolding for their equipment. We move right to left:

Again, layers upon layers.

Finally, there’s a shot very close to the end with that same thing of a tracking shot moving perpendicular to the action and showing a great deal of depth in the staging. This shot in particular comes at the end of an emotional night of debauchery and the moment feels at least a little hallucinatory, aided by the dreamy camera. As the camera moves right to left, all of the exhausted partiers begin walking right to left, but all on different planes (different distances from the camera), and passing in front of or behind trees:

In the middle screen grab, you see how the moving camera has caught up to someone in the immediate foreground — a woman who, like the black tent, makes the shot seem ever deeper. The best touch is the car pointed at us and the path it’s on. (You can see it near the center of the middle and bottom screen grabs.) The orientation of the car now intersects the whole geometric arrangement of right-left at an oblique angle, in a little symphony of geometry.

So, to put it in a more articulate manner: Awesome. Awesome, awesome, awesome.

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