La Dolce Vita: Fellini’s Masterpiece

The cinema is narrative in the nineteenth-century sense. Now let’s try to do something different.
Fellini

I have no idea when Jack Nicholson began wearing dark glasses at night, but I won’t be surprised if the inspiration came from Marcello Mastroianni in “La Dolce Vita,” Fellin’s masterpiece of 1960. In a career-making role, Mastroianni plays a self-loathing tabloid journalist named Marcello Rubini, who spends his days and nights exploring the seamy sides of Rome’s high society.

Dark glasses and other fashion trends were just one out of many influences that “Dolce Vita” had when it was released. In fact, the very phrase “dolce vita” (the “sweet life”) was adopted in English as a synonym for European decadence. Offering a window into the then new phenomenon of jet-set society, “Dolce Vita” is the movie that introduced to a large international public the decadence of Rome’s Via Veneto and the concept of paparazzi, which immediately assumed negative connotations.

 

“La Dolce Vita,” one of my all-time favorite pictures, was a departure from the aesthetic and thematic qualities of his earlier films. With this film, he takes his first steps into the more personal, introspective, often surreal world of his later works, such as “81/2.”

Fellini once explained the artistic intentions behind “La Dolce Vita” in the following way: “We have to make a statue, break it, and recompose the pieces. Or better yet, try a decomposition in the manner of Picasso. The cinema is narrative in the nineteenth-century sense: now let’s try to do something different.”

Lacking a conventional plot, the film is composed of a series of episodes, all of which are meant to reflect Marcello’s deep spiritual crisis. Marcello aspires to be a serious writer, but never gets beyond gossip. Most of the protagonists in Marcello’s travelogue are women: Maddalena (Anouk Aimee), a bored wealthy heiress constantly on the lookout for new thrills; Moneta, a whore, with whom Marcello and Maddalena have a menage a trios; his regular mistress, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), who takes an overdose of pills, and most seductive of all, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a Hollywood starlet whose visit to Rome Marcello covers. Infatuated with the buxom blonde, he takes her for a tour around town, showing her Fontana di Trevi, St. Peter’s, and the Caracella Baths. The tour is violently interrupted when Marcello is attacked by her fiance Robert, played by Lex Barker, who was then married to Ekberg.

In one of the most celebrated sequences in modern cinema history, the film begins with a large statue of Jesus being carried over the by a helicopter. Following this bizarre sight is Marcello, in another chopper, a gossip writer for the local scandal tabloid, Lire. The film’s scariest scene is the one in which Alain Cuny, a bohemian intellectual whom Marcello idolizes and envies, inexplicably commits suicide and takes with him the lives of his two children. Marcello’s crisis about the meaninglessness of life comes to a head but, true to his nature, he fails to act on his feelings and continues his glamorous but hollow lifestyle.

Born to a farming and trading family in the coastal town of Rimini (a childhood celebrated in “Amarcord”), Fellini moved to Rome, where he first tried his hand as a journalist. He began his film career in the Italian neo-realist movement at the end of World War II, collaborating with Roberto Rossellini on the screenplays for “Open City” and “Paisan,” before striking on his own. Aiming to break away from conventional narrative cinema, Fellini explained in 1959: “We have to make a statue, break it, and recompose the pieces. Or better yet, try decomposition in the manner of Picasso. The cinema is narrative in the nineteenth-century sense: now let’s try to do something different.” Fellini certainly made something different with “Dolce Vita”–and his next, even more impressive, film, “81/2.” A departure from both the aesthetic and thematic qualities of Fellini’s earlier films (most notably “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria”), “Dolce Vita” began a series of more personal and introspective films, in which Fellini created subjective yet magical worlds with universal appeal.

As Italy began its postwar economic boom, quickly becoming a consumerist society, Fellini scrutinizes its new, decadent “cafe society,” and the inevitable confrontation within the elite between the nouveau rich and the older aristocratic establishment. “Dolce Vita” created a tremendous scandal. Church groups, Roman nobility and right-wing politicians who had rallied behind “La Strada,” insisted that “Dolce Vita” be banned. Liberals, meanwhile, rushed back to Fellini’s side, claiming the film depicted accurately the corruption of Italy’s upper class. The debate over the film resulted in a huge commercial success: “Dolce Vita” broke all Italian box-office records. Decades after the film’s initial release, tourists continue to visit the locations used in the film.

The only foreign-language picture up for awards in major categories, “Dolce Vita” was nominated for four Oscars, winning one, for Piero Gherardi’s black-and-white costume designs; Gherardi was also nominated for art direction. Fellini was nominated for Best Director, as well as for Original Screenplay, which he co-wrote. To put it in perspective, it’s worth noting that in 1961, most of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar were rather conventional or generic, including “Fanny,” “The Guns of Navarone,” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The winner was the musical “West Side Story,” which swept most of the Oscars.

The characters may be moody and self-obsessed, but the imagery depicting them is vital and poignant. The visuals’ extraordinary vividness highlights even more the film’s message of spiritual emptiness. Over the years, “Dolce Vita” has lost some of its shock value, and its message might seem trite today, but at the time, the movie was an engrossing experience, showing both filmmakers and filmgoers the potential impact of movies.

 

“La Dolce Vita” was a more personal yet critical film than Fellini’s earlier work, for the first time scrutinizing on screen Italy’s decadent postwar “cafe society.”  Indeed, as Italy began its postwar economic boom, becoming a consumer society, Fellini depicted the inevitable confrontation within the elite, between the new rich and the aristocratic establishment. The phrase “dolce vita,” or the “sweet life,” became synonymous even in English with European hedonism.

“La Dolce Vita” created a tremendous scandal. Church groups, Roman nobility and right-wing politicians who had rallied behind “La Strada,” insisted that “La Dolce Vita” be banned. Liberals, meanwhile, rushed back to Fellini’s side, claiming the film accurately depicted the corruption of Italy’s upper class. The great debate over the film led to box office records: La Dolce Vita broke all Italian records. Years after the film’s release, international tourists still flocked to Rome to visit locations used in the story.

The movie had huge impact on every aspect of culture, language (it introduced the term paparazzi to the wide public), fashion (wearing dark glasses at night), depiction of cool parties and orgies (almost every European film of the 1960s included such scenes), and so on.

Oscar Alert

The only foreign-language picture to be up for major awards, “La Dolce Vita” was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director for Fellini.  The movie won the B/W Costume Design for Piero Gherardi. The other nominations were for Original Screenplay (Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, and Brunello Rondi) and B/W Art Direction (also Gherardi)

About Fellini

Fellini was born to a farming and trading family in the coastal town of Rimini in 1920. As a young man, he wound up in Rome and tried to become a journalist.  Fellini began his film career in the Italian neo-realist movement, which started at the end of World War II. He collaborated with the country’s most prominent filmmaker at the time, Roberto Rossellini, on the screenplays for the ultra-realistic films, “Open City” (1946) and “Paisan” (1946). Eventually, Fellini was to become the best known Italian filmmaker outside of the country, the only Italian artist nominated for multiple Oscar Awards as director.

Criterion Special Collector’s Edition

This edition contains an introduction from director Alexander Payne, interviews with Fellini and his two stars, Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, and a collector’s booklet with rare photos from the theatrical set photographer. The quality of the digitally-mastered and restored film, luminously shot in black-and-white, is wonderful.

 

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