Federico Fellini's parody of the parasites who bask in the glory of cheap publicity not only exposes the emptiness of their lives, but also of those who report their antics as if they were of world-shattering import. And, of course, by association, he's also taking a pop at those of us who shell out our hard-earned cash to read about them and then salaciously discuss every trivial detail.
This was the film that coined the term 'paparazzi', and the morality of the international squadron of shutterbugs doesn't seem to have changed much since Fellini followed its founding members as they snapped celebrities along Rome's Via Veneto. The film is now 43 years old — older than the tabloids, colour supplements and lifestyle magazines that peddle the inconsequential doings of nobodies as inspiration for those aspiring to secure their own slice of la dolce vita. Yet it could have been filmed yesterday, although no-one around now could hope to match Fellini's satirical genius or Marcello Mastroianni's insouciant charm.
You can imagine the furore this mischievous expose caused in more innocent times. Italian cinema in 1960 was still more in thrall to the neorealists of the post-Fascist era than the New Wavers who had just taken France by storm. Indeed, Fellini himself was considering directing a rose-tinted realist project called Fortunella — about a waif living with a junk dealer who yearns for respectability through an affair with an aristocratic academic. He decided to pass in case he was accused of reprising themes already explored in his breakthrough features, La Strada (1954) and Nights Of Cabiria (1957).
He was no more enthusiastic about making an adaptation of Boccaccio's Decameron, Barabbas (with Anthony Quinn), Don Quixote (with Jacques Tati), Casanova's Memoirs (with Orson Welles) or regular collaborator Ennio Flaiano's fantasy, A Martian In Rome. So, instead, he chose to revisit a couple of stalled assignments to consider the ethical shift that had accompanied Italy's transition from post-War poverty to the avarice and complacency of the buoyant 1950s.
Moraldo In The City had been started in 1954 and recalled Fellini's experiences as a young journalist on the magazine Marc'Aurelio. Meanwhile, A Journey With Anita was a 1956 treatment about a Rome-based writer who takes up with a young mistress following the collapse of his marriage. On to these bare bones, Fellini created the character of Marcello Rubini's (Mastroianni) playboy hack, at once attracted and repelled by the carnival around him.
But the rest of La Dolce Vita was gleaned from stories that had hit the headlines over the previous decade. A statue of Christ had been flown over Rome en route to the Vatican on May Day in 1950 (as replicated in the famous opening shot), while two girls from the town of Terni had claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary in June 1953. The party striptease duplicated an incident at a bash thrown for millionaire RH. Vandebilt in 1958, while the Steiner (the bohemian Marcello so envies) subplot was inspired by the tragedy of an embittered intellectual who had killed his children before jumping to his death. The most notorious borrowing, however, was the discovery of a woman's corpse on the beach, which alluded to the Montesi Case that had caused a major scandal in 1957 when the prime suspect was supposedly exonerated owing to his contacts in high places.
But it wasn't just the liberation Rome demonstrated following the death in 1958 of the puritanical Pope Pius XII that prompted the glitterati to indulge in unashamed decadence. The Eternal City had become the capital of cool in the eyes of many Americans after the success of Roman Holiday (1953) and Three Coins In The Fountain (1954). Stars of varying lustres were keen to work at firm studio Cinecitta on epics like Ben-Hur (1959), while Hollywood companies were keen both to free up some of the resources frozen in Europe after the War and to save on production costs at a time of spiralling budgets and dwindling box office returns by shooting so-called 'runaways' abroad.
In truth, the city was a little strarstruck. Its social movers and showbiz shakersaped the styles and mannerisms of even such minor names as musclemen Lex Barker and Steve Reeves, who were treated like superstars while making sword-and-sandals pictures. Rome was awash with has-beens, wannabes and serial losers, and Fellini couldn't resist exposing their pathetic desperation on the screen.
Paul Newman was reportedly keen to participate in this denunciation of faux glamour, but Fellini had already decided that Marcello Mastroianni was his ideal alter ego. His other casting decisions infuriated producer Dino De Laurentiis, who had envisaged Maurice Chevalier as Marcello's father (who would be played by Fascist-era icon, Annibale Ninchi), Henry Fonda as Steiner and Barbara Stanwyck as Nadia. However, Fellini himself had been forced to make some compromises. At various times he had considered Peter Ustinov and Walter Pidgeon for Steiner (Alain Cuny), Silvana Mangano (former pin-up of Italian cinema who was now Mrs. De Laurentiis) for the heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) and Edwige Feuillere, Greer Garson and Luise Rainer for Nadia (Nadia Gray).
Yet no-one could have hoped for a better starlet than Anita Ekberg, whose career summed up much of what Fellini was satirising. Since coming fourth in the 1951 Miss Universe contest, she'd been as much known for her rocky marriage to British thesp Anthony Steel as her acting. But now it's impossible to think of anyone else cavorting in the Trevi Fountain with such pneumatic sensuality.
Convinced this "incoherent, false and pessimistic" picture would cost his wallet and reputation, De Laurentiis baled out. Fellini accepted the backing of maverick publisher Angelo Rizzolli, who gave him $50,000 and a gold watch for breaking both domestic and US box office records.
At least Fellini could console himself with the fact that he had upset just about every section of society, with Catholics banned from seeing such atheist, Communist and treasonable filth. Moreover, his brilliant use of a shallow depth of field on a sprawling canvas had revealed the beautiful people of the ancient capital to be as isolated as the miserable bourgeois scouring the remote rock in 1960's other landmark European film, Antonioni's L'Avventura.
But most significantly, Fellini had single-handedly rebranded and repositioned Italian cinema. In doing so, he earned himself the creative freedom that would result in yet another masterpiece, 8 1/2 (1963).
This and 8 1/2 are Fellini's great masterpieces.
Great Italian director Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) chronicles the fast-paced, seductive life of the Roman cosmopolitan world and all its excesses, capturing a moment in time when notions of glamor, empty entertainment and the promise of a quick thrill seemed poised to replace all humanizing values, and dignity was transmuted into the sensational. For Fellini, the film marks a turning point, a shift away from his neorealist roots as a writer for Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Paisa (1946), and his own earlier films like I Vitteloni (1953), La Strada (1954), and The Nights of Cabiria (1957). The director’s movies became more stylized, more poetic, finally giving way to the visual carnival of 8½ (1963), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and Amarcord (1973). His images are highly charged with contrasts, textures, and movements and filled with longing and regret, even despair, but there is always a sense of joy, of wonder, a pure expression of love for his characters, their stories, and cinema. La Dolce Vita is not a film, it’s an experience. Following Marcello, a young journalist on the make (played by Marcello Mastroiani in the first of a series of collaborations with Fellini) as he chases down stories and women, the movie is a loose series of episodes, nights and dawns, ascents and descents weaved together in the decadent rhythm of an endless, aimless search for the elusive sweet life of Rome’s upper class.
Marcello is a handsome, weary man who seeks happiness but never seems to take the right steps to achieve it. He dreams of someday doing something good, but is trapped in a life of empty nights and lonely mornings. “Once I had ambitions, but maybe I’m losing everything,” he muses. He seems to lament the loss of a moral center and intellectual direction without ever trying to regain either. He is caught in a downward spiral of pleasure and excitement, drifting directionlessly through the decadence and despair of his environment. “Now I have a job I don’t like, but I’m thinking about tomorrow.” He has illusions of entering this world and emerging untouched, thinking he is in this dazzling decadent setting, but not of it. He knows everyone and every angle in the Via Veneto, and everyone seems to know him.
Marcello and Maddalena, in search for a change in their nightly routine, pick up a prostitute and go back to her home, descending into her flooded basement apartment and claiming her bed for the night. The morning only comes to illuminate the emptiness of their lives, as Marcello returns home to find his girlfriend has overdosed on prescription pills. Here, Marcello has a potential moment of awakening, when the most extreme closeup in the film shows how he is instantly shocked into alertness. Perhaps he will start to value what he has and stop hurting the woman that loves him so much. The spell lasts for about a minute; at the hospital, he is already calling Maddalena. Marcello is unfaithful and uncaring, but he returns to Emma again and again, as if she is the secure base he doesn’t want to give up. She waits for him, cooking and making plans for the future, unable to accept that he will never be satisfied with her “aggressive, sticky, maternal love.” Marcello says she lives in a dream, outside of reality, but later in the movie she demonstrates exactly how clear-eyed and realistic she is, asking a higher power why he has changed so much and why he doesn’t love her anymore.
On the third night, Fellini once again chronicles a fruitless search. Marcello is called at an alleged sighting of the Madonna, another idealized woman that we hope can solve every problem. Hundreds of people, the faithful as well as the curious, film crews, journalists, and photographers make a spectacle out of it. Here the director creates a panoramic cinematic fresco teeming with nonstop activity and gives us long fluid takes, the relentless camera panning and tracking with and against the motion within the frame. “Miracles are born out of silence, not in this confusion,” a woman tells Emma, and it’s true. The children lead the crowd on a chase, just as Sylvia led Marcello the previous night. They see the Virgin here, and then there, and the faithful run from one end of the field to the other, never finding what they are looking for as the children’s grandfather collects tips. It starts raining, and the scene is almost tangible. Fellini produces a tactile quality in all his movies, and in this scene in particular you can almost feel the rain coats as water trickles down, or the fedoras through the way the light reflects off them. Marcello climbs up a ladder, where the man working the lights comments on his relationship with Emma, relating it to his own wife: “sometimes she makes me so upset, and at other times…” And it’s true. Marcello can love or use women, worship them or ignore them, idealize or vilify them, but he cannot control them. In 8½, Guido had the same problem. Even in his fantasies, like the wonderful, both funny and terrifying harem sequence, the women in his life still have a will of their own, starting a riot.
Once again, everything collapses into an exhausted dawn. The night ends in death, as one of the faithful is trampled. The paparazzi, always present, cross themselves reverentially and take one last picture. No one has any respect for anything anymore. Old values, old disciplines are discarded for the modern, the synthetic, the quick by a society that is past sophistication, too full of pleasure, glamor, and itself. A world apart from the meaningless existence of the middle class is Steiner’s apartment. When his wife opens the door, she looks directly at the camera, inviting us, as well as Marcello in. The way she’s shot makes it look like she’s floating rather than walking. Here Steiner presides over his perfect wife and two perfect children, intellectuals, poets, artists, and musicians, and the conversations are decidedly less empty. At the same time, he seems discontent, asking “what use is civilization to us?” and complaining about “an existence protected by organized society, where everything is calculated, everything is perfect.” His advice to Marcello is to “live outside of passions, beyond obsessions, outside of time, detached.” With Steiner as someone to look up to, we see a change in Marcello. Steiner compliments his writing, saying it’s “vivid, passionate, (…) qualities [he] insist[s] on hiding.” The next day, which marks the center of the film, he escapes his regular life and takes his typewriter to a country trattoria to write.
As the father, Marcello, and his faithful Paparazzo make their way from nightclubs to showgirls’ homes, we understand where the main character gets his easy charm and his way with women from, but also his aimlessness. The old man has never been a caring father; a traveling salesman—like the director’s dad—he was absent most of Marcello’s childhood. Come morning, the father falls ill and leaves in a hurry. Marcello begs him to stay, to forge a connection perhaps, complaining “I never see you,” but he will not be persuaded. Left alone on an empty street in a long shot, Marcello’s isolation is almost palpable. The dawn also brings another form of disillusionment for the viewer. The old man might have been his son’s hero, but the first shot of him in the morning, the back of his head with his hair sticking out in all directions, exactly mirrors the first shot of the clown at the Cha-Cha-Cha. Marcello’s father is reduced to the status of an entertainer that degrades himself for others’ enjoyment, as sad, sorrowful melodies play in the background. Nina Rota’s brilliant score perfectly captures the picture’s mood of melancholy sensuality. The music is sometimes quasi-liturgical, sometimes jazz, sometimes rock, with “Jingle Bells” thrown in for good measure. In a film that is in constant motion, Fellini’s composer gives the characters the music for their processions and parades.
The hardest blow to Mastroiani’s character is when he finds out his other hero, Steiner, is a fraud. His unspeakable acts destroy any kind of faith in humanity that Marcello might have still had. Steiner was his only reference to reality and stability, and when he dies, Marcello’s hope dies. “I don’t know anything. Anything at all,” he tells the police. The scene in which he accompanies the detective to greet Steiner’s unknowing wife shows the paparazzi at their most savage. The nights get progressively more and more depraved, and by the second-to-last night, Fellini makes it clear that there is a lack of any kind of connection between these people—it doesn’t even matter if they speak the same language, as model Nico starts speaking German to Marcello.
La Dolce Vita functions, as all of the director’s movies, like a series of short stories, self-contained episodes that are brought together into the main story. The basic element of Fellini’s films has always been the sequence. In 8½, Guido’s writer questions him about his movie, saying it “lacks a fundamental idea or, say, a philosophical premise,” calling it “a series of senseless episodes,” but this open form has a purpose. It creates a sense of realism; the world of the film is a momentary frame around an ongoing reality. The objects and people existed before the camera focused on them, and will be there after the film is over. The characters are not reduced to a single line of cause and effect relationships, and the story doesn’t have a clear-cut resolution because life cannot be reduced to the running time of any movie.
In 8½, a journalist asks Guido, Fellini’s stand-in, why he never filmed a love story. All of Fellini’s films are love stories. Even at their harshest, they are filled with joy as well as despair, with a profound melancholy, and untold feelings of tenderness and passion. La Dolce Vita is one of his best movies, and one of his most deeply felt. Half a century has only made its strengths more apparent. Even if we come to pity Marcello and the movie’s other characters, we can’t but love them as well.