This film defined a certain era of cool even though its overt purpose is to undermine it. Not a surprise, since Fellini, like Marcello, hovers on the edge between gorging himself on the decadence around him and remaining true to a purer conception of the sweet life. It's an ironic title: the free-wheeling hedonism on display is overlaid with Catholic symbols: the moral certainty of a previous age gone haywire. The film opens with a statue of Jesus being flown to the Vatican, with Marcello and his film crew trailing behind distracted by sunbathing women. The flirting is disrupted by distance, noise and the work at hand. At the end of the film, Marcello is on a beach surrounded by revellers marvelling at a grotesue sea-creature. He has joined the orgy, it's a holiday all the time now. From across the estury, the "angelic" waitress calls to him, but he cannot hear her over the sound of the waves. He succumbs completely to the spiral that (as a fellow lost soul predicts) will result in complete depravity in a few years time. The inner voice of conscience, the divine spark, is drowned out by the chaos of the modern world.
Sylvia is a different kind of divinity - inhumanly tireless, infectiously sensual: a sprite escaped from the lands of Fairie (or is it America?). She's a sort of preternaturally glowing elemental being, a nymph from an earlier pagan culture and mythology. And in that role she annoints Marcello in the Fontana di Trevi. But then the night ends, she is slapped around by her husband, and goes into another day answering inane questions from insect-like reporters, trying to hold the act together. There is a kind of magic that is being fed to the celebrity press machine, but it turns out to be a fabrication, one that ensnares and cages the fabricators.
Religion is hardly put forward as the solution to the corruption of the 1950s. The orgy in the castle ends with morning mass, the sins of the night before washed away. Then there is the miracle of the Madonna sighting gathering huge crowds and television cameras, whipping up the kind of religious hysteria that leads to death. The church, as part of the establishment, is just as implicated in the sensationalisation and meaninglessness of modern life. There is no sweetness to be found here.
Marcello's turbulent (due to his constant philandering) relationship with his partner is contrasted with the serenity of Steiner's family life. It comes as a shock when it is revealed that Steiner kills his two children and himself because there isn't enough love in the universe. Fellini undercuts any notion of the nobility of the act by focusing on the wife, who apparently isn't worth saving from the world's evils. She learns about the destruction of her family surrounded by a pack of reporters crawling around her. Steiner's decision doesn't make any kind of sense, but by this point we are like Marcello: numb to all events around us.
A bit like Persona, can't escape the suspicion that the film is acclaimed partly because it evades a too precise thematic through-line, so you can read what you like into the succession of stories presented to you. The episodes in La Dolce Vita are not united by a singular narrative, neither do they contain within them concrete explanations for the decisions the characters make, or the world in which they live in. We are spectators partly enjoying and partly disapproving of the show, without really understanding what we are seeing. Perhaps that is the point. After all, the film is wrapped up in the concept of not hearing each other, not making that genuine connection to our real selves, that pure inner spirit.
In that light, the film could be compared to the kind of existential listlessness all those French authors fell into when they were confronted with the lack of divine purpose in the world. The religious structure to the universe taken away, what's to stop us from falling into the mire of mindless sensation? The mature response isn't suicide (Steiner) or nihilism (Marcello), but the acceptance of firmer explanations for the structure of our reality, relationships and society.