Dolce Vita, La (1960): Fellini’s Masterpiece

Frederico Fellini’s “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” (“THe Sweet Life”) in this 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.”

“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.

Narrative Structure

The film is divided into a prologue, 7 major episodes, and an epilogue.  But do they depict 7 consecutive days?

Prologue

Day 1: A helicopter transports a statue of Christ over an ancient Roman aqueduct, while a second, Marcello Rubini’s news helicopter, follows it into the city. The news helicopter is sidetracked by some bikini-clad women sunbathing on the rooftop of a high-rise building. Hovering above, Marcello tries to elicit phone numbers from them, but then shrugs and continues on his mission, follow the statue into Saint Peter’s Square.

1st Night Sequence:

Marcello meets Maddalena, a rich beautiful heiress, in a nightclub. Tired of Rome, she looks for new adventures; for Marcello, Rome is an alluring jungle where he can hide. They make love in the room of a prostitute to whom they had given ride home in Maddalena’s Cadillac.

1st Dawn Sequence: Marcello returns to his apartment at dawn to find his fiancée, Emma, overdosed. On the way to the hospital, he declares his love to her, which he repeats in the emergency room. While waiting for her recovery, however, he tries to call Maddalena.

Episode 2

2nd Day Sequence: Marcello is assigned to cover the arrival of Sylvia, a famous Swedish actress, at Ciampino airport, where she is met by news reporters.

During Sylvia’s press conference, Marcello calls home to ensure Emma has taken medication. After the star deals with the journalists’ questions, her boyfriend Robert (Lex Barker) arrives late and drunk. Marcello recommends that Sylvia tours St Peter’s.

Inside St Peter’s dome, a news reporter complains that Sylvia is “an elevator” because none of them can match her energetic climbing up the stairs. Marcello maneuvers to be alone with her when they finally reach the balcony.

2nd Night Sequence: That evening, Marcello dances with Sylvia in the Baths of Caracalla. Sylvia’s sensuality triggers partying while Robert, her bored fiancé, draws caricatures and reads newspapers.  Humiliated, Sylvia leaves, followed by Marcello and his paparazzi. Alone, Marcello and Sylvia walk in the alleys of Rome until they reach Trevi Fountain.

2nd Dawn Sequence:

Sylvia playfully “anoints” Marcello’s head with fountain water. They drive back to Sylvia’s hotel to find an enraged Robert waiting. Robert slaps Sylvia, orders her to go to bed, and then assaults Marcello.

Episode 3a

3rd Day Sequence: Marcello meets Steiner, his intellectual friend, in a church playing Bach on the organ. Steiner shows off his book of Sanskrit grammar.

Episode 4

4th Day Sequence: Late afternoon, Marcello, his photographer friend Paparazzo, and Emma drive to the outskirts of Rome to cover a story of two children claiming to see the Madonna. The Catholic Church is skeptical, but there’s large crowd of devotees and reporters.

3rd Night Sequence: That event is broadcast on Italian radio and television. The crowd follows the children, tearing a tree whose branches have sheltered the Madonna. Meanwhile, Emma prays to the Virgin Mary to be Marcello’s sole love.

3rd Dawn Sequence: The crowd mourns a sick child, a pilgrim brought by his mother to be healed, but trampled to death in the melee.

Episode 3b

4th Night Sequence: Marcello and Emma attend a gathering at Steiner’s home where intellectuals recite poetry, discuss philosophical ideas, and listen to sounds of nature on tape. An American poetess recommends that Marcello avoid the “prisons” of commitment: “Stay free, available, like me. Never get married. Never choose. Even in love, it’s better to be chosen.” Enchanted with Steiner’s home and children, Emma wishes to have a home like Steiner’s.

Marcello professes to Steiner his admiration for Steiner, and the latter admits a conflict between the security of materialistic life affords and longing for more spiritual insecure lifestyle. Steiner fears the future of his children when they grow up.

Intermezzo

5th Day Sequence: Marcello works on his novel at a seaside restaurant where he meets Paola, a young waitress from Perugia playing cha-cha Patricia  the jukebox. He describes her as an angel in Umbrian paintings.

Episode 5

5th Night Sequence: Marcello meets his father (Annibale Ninchi) in Rome’s Via Veneto.  They go to the Cha-Cha-Cha Club where Marcello introduces his father to Fanny, a beautiful dancer and a former girlfriend, who takes a liking to his father. Marcello tells Paparazzo that as a child he had not seen much of his father, who would spend weeks away from home. Fanny invites Marcello’s father back to her flat. Later, Fanny gets upset that Marcello’s father has become ill.

4th Dawn Sequence: Marcello’s father, who has suffered a mild heart attack, wants to go home. He leaves Marcello forlorn, on the street, watching the taxi leave.

Episode 6

6th Night Sequence: Marcello, Nico, and friends meet on the Via Veneto and go to aristocrats castle at Bassano di Sutri outside Rome.  A party is in progress, and the guests are intoxicated. By chance, Marcello meets Maddalena, and they explore ruins next to the castle. Maddalena seats Marcello in a vast room and then closets herself in another room connected by an echo chamber. As a disembodied voice, Maddalena asks him to marry her; Marcello professes love, but doesn’t answer her proposal. Maddalena loses interest in Marcello, and he rejoins the group, ending the night with Jane, a rich American artist.

5th Dawn Sequence: Burnt out, the group returns at dawn to the castle, to be met by the matriarch who is on her way to mass, accompanied by priests.

Episode 3c

7th Night Sequence: Marcello and Emma, alone in his sports car on an isolated road, argue and she tries to get out of the car, claiming that he will never find another woman who loves him like her. Angered, Marcello dismisses her smothering maternal love. Violence erupts, when she bites him and he slap her, and he throws her out of the car and drives off. Hours later, he returns and Emma gets into the car with neither of them saying a word.

6th Dawn Sequence: While Marcello and Emma are asleep, he receives a call.  Rushing to the Steiners’ place, he learns that Steiner has killed his two children and himself.

6th Day Sequence: After waiting with the police for Steiner’s wife, he breaks the terrible news while paparazzi swarm around her snapping pictures.

Episode 7

6th Night Sequence: An older, grayer Marcello and some partygoers break into a Fregene beach house owned by Riccardo, Marcello’s. To celebrate her recent divorce from Riccardo, Nadia performs a striptease to Perez rado’s cha-cha Patricia. Marcello, drunk, attempts to provoke the other partygoers into an orgy. The party descends into mayhem with Marcello throwing pillow feathers around the room as he rides a young woman crawling on her knees. Riccardo shows up and kicks out the partygoers.

Epilogue

7th Dawn Sequence: The party proceeds to the beach at dawn where they find a leviathan, a bloated creature in the fishermen’s nets. Marcello comments on how its eyes stare even in death.

7th Day Sequence: Paola, the adolescent waitress from Fregene’s seaside restaurant calls to Marcello, but their words are lost on the wind, drowned out by the waves. He signals his inability to understand her words or interpret her gestures. He returns to the party, and one of the women joins him, holding hands as they walk away from the beach. In the close-up, Paola waves to Marcello then stands watching him with a smile.

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.

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