Although the Cold War was
raging, the 1950s were a decade of relative peace and comfortability.
It was a time of "the good life." In America, the suburbs
were burgeoning and television was transforming the culture. In
Europe, the recovery from the ravages of World War II was well
advanced. Mankind was entering the Space Age and technology promised
a bright future.
"La Dolce Vita" was filmed in 1959
in and around Rome and much of it was shot in post-war, redeveloped
neighborhoods. Its lead character, Marcello Rubini, played by
Marcello Mastroianni, is a writer for gossip tabloids and hangs
around the Via Veneto with the paparazzi, the photographers who
sell their pictures of celebrities to the scandal sheets. The
paparazzi had already been around for a while, and have survived
decades later and their "culture" has become much more
pervasive than when the film was made, one of the many reasons
why this masterpiece has remained a classic.
The film's title means "The Sweet Life,"
and refers to the decadence of the upper classes. In America,
Jackie Gleason, the comic, had a popular television program in
which one of his famous lines was "How sweet it is."
Although one of his characters, Reginald Van Gleason, was a black-tie
rapscallion with a toy train set always at the ready to transport
to him his supply of booze, Gleason's "sweet" was joyful
and not sardonic as Fellini's.
"La Dolce Vita" is a devastatingly
bleak portrait of a troubled soul who cannot resist the good things
of life and whose amusement at the vapidness of rich wastrels
on which he makes his living eventually engulfs him and makes
him no different.
The film was banned for many years in Italy
because of its depiction of many Italians, at least the rich ones,
as degenerate, selfish, spoiled souls, its blatant sexuality,
and also because of its substantial, irreverent religious content
that offended many Catholics.
Italian film after World War II was noted for
its realism. Movies such as "Open City," "Shoeshine"
and "Bicycle Thief" were immensely powerful narratives
of the plight of the poor. Fellini was not inured to the poor
and indeed his great 1954 film, "La Strada," was about
poor circus folk.
"La Dolce Vita" is a landmark film
that does not turn its back on the poor while focusing on the
care-free well-to-do, and, more importantly, brutally raises difficult
questions about the goodness of man and the meaning of life. Marcello
disintegrates and is corrupted and by the end of the film has
become a wretched and weary, miserable and mean person, although
the final scene suggests he still has some respect for innocence.
This is a long, episodic film of great scenes.
It opens with a memorable aerial shot of a statue of Jesus being
borne by a helicopter over Rome followed by another helicopter
with a journalist and a photographer. It passes over the Coliseum,
construction sites, sunbathing women on a rooftop and St. Peter's
The journalist is Marcello and he drives a
Triumph sports car and has a beautiful fiancé, Emma, played
by Yvonne Fureaux, who has conventional values and wants to get
married and have children. He is, however, besotted with the lives
of the rich and famous and has a roving eye. Early in the film
he encounters Sylvia, an extremely voluptuous and beautiful movie
star, played by Anita Ekberg, and is madly infatuated.
At one point, she wades into the Trevi fountain
and he joins her as shown in the above photograph that is the
frontispiece for Jerry Vermilye's very excellent book, "Great
Italian Films," (published by Citadel Press, Carol Publishing
Company, 1994, $17.95). With her very long tresses and fabulous,
low-cut, evening gown, Sylvia is Aphrodite incarnate and the scene
is one of the most famous in film history.
In his fine book, "Conversations with
Fellini," (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1995), Costanzo Costantini,
relates the following comments from his interviews with the director
about this scene:
"For me the film is identified more with
Anita Ekberg than with the Via Veneto. She possessed incredible
beauty. I have never seen anyone like her; she made a great impression
on me. Later the same day I met Marcello Mastroianni, who later
told me that Ekberg reminded him of a storm trooper in the Wehrmacht,
but really he didn't want to admit that even he had never before
seen such marvelous and unbelievable beauty. She remained immersed
in the basin for ages, motionless, impassive, as if the water
didn't cover her nor the cold affect her, even though it was March
and the nights made one shiver. For Mastroianni, it was a rather
different story. To combat the cold he polished off a bottle of
vodka, and when we shot the scene he was completely pissed."
Costantini goes on to quote Fellini to the
effect that Dino De Laurentis had wanted Paul Newman for the role
of the journalist: "How could Paul Newman be believable as
a journalist in the Via Veneto, when he himself would have been
the object of the chasing pack of paparazzi? What was required
was an actor who wasn't a household name. I remember De Laurentis
saying to me, `He's too soft and goody-goody; a family man rather
than the type who flings women onto the bed.' As an alternative
to Paul Newman he suggested Gérard Philipe, but that came
to nothing and he ended up giving up the film."
Mastroianni, of course, would go to become
one of the greatest stars in film history and his performance
in this movie is sensational, ranging from child-like amusement
to adoration to arrogance, rage to respect, all with great charm
and elegance. His character is extremely complex - cynical but
insecure, observant but obsessed. He is dissatisfied with life
and not content to settle down with his adoring fiancé
and is easily distracted by beautiful women.
One of the film's highlights is a party thrown
by Steiner, a musician and intellectual, played with great panache
by Alain Cluny, who suggests he can get Marcello a publisher so
he can give up writing gossip and concentrate on something more
important. Marcello appears grateful and implies he will give
it serious consideration. He clearly is impressed by Steiner who
admits the following:
"Sometimes at night the darkness and silence
weighs upon me. Peace frightens me; perhaps I fear it most of
all. I feel it is only a façade hiding the face of hell.
I think, `What is in store for my children tomorrow?' `The world
will be wonderful,' they say. But from whose viewpoint? If one
phone call could announce the end of everything? We need to live
in a state of suspended animation like a work of art, in a state
of enchantment. We have to succeed in loving so greatly that we
live outside of time, detached."
This enchantment is a distraction, of course,
from reality and the "face of hell." Is not gossip a
distraction? Is Steiner suggesting that even art is a distraction?
He admits that he is "too serious to be an amateur and not
serious enough to be a professional." His coterie of friends
are a cultured lot, one ranting about Oriental women, another
about poetry. It is refined bonhomie, an alert salon, a rarefied
gathering. Marcello clearly sees Steiner's invitation to see one
another more often as attractive and positive.
It is, therefore, with great shock that later
in the film Steiner commits suicide and kills his two children,
whom he obviously loved a great deal. Marcello offers to go with
a detective and point out his wife who is returning home only
to have to fend off the paparazzi, whom we have seen earlier in
the film posing the parents of two children who have seen the
Madonna in a "miracle."
Marcello has a touching encounter with his
father who he takes to a nightclub. When the father later gets
ill, Marcello implores him to stay with him but the father leaves
to go catch a train. Marcello is extremely affectionate, realizing
that he has not seen much of his father and perhaps eager to understand
him and therefore part of himself better.
He runs off to a party in a villa where he
encounters Maddalena, played with inviting promiscuity by Anouk
Aimée, who at one point has him sit in a room while she
whispers to him mysteriously from another suggesting that they
get married. Marcello impetuously agrees, but she has already
succumbed to the advances of another man at the party. The party
scene of aristocrats and playboys includes a séance.
Marcello breaks off with his fiancé
in an astonishingly angry scene in which he leaves her stranded
on a road. He returns hours later to pick her up but only continues
his tirades at her "selfishness": "it's not love,
At another point in the film, he is typing
a story while on the terrace of a country restaurant where he
asks the young waitress, Paola, played by Valeria Ciangottini,
to turn off the bouncy music. They engage in a conversation and
he remarks that she reminds him of an "Umbrian angel."
At the end of the film, she reappears and yells to him across
a tidal basin but he cannot understand her because of the noise
of the sea. He smiles and waves goodbye to her.
He had gone to the beach because a crowd of
people were clustered around a "sea monster" that had
been caught up in a net and washed ashore. He had been up all
night a party for Nadia, played with stylish sophistication by
Nadia Gray, who was celebrating her divorce. At the party, Nadia
does a striptease, but the jaded partygoers, some of whom are
openly homosexual, are not satisfied and Marcello, who has become
a publicity agent, proceeds to insult various guests and stick
feathers on one woman and ride her like a horse. He has become
Had Fellini ended the film without the final
striptease party, and even without the reappearance and rejection
of the Umbrian angel, we might have despaired for Marcello as
Modern Man, not satisfied by traditional religion, not content
with the trappings of the elite, the trappings of marriage, the
trappings of affairs, still searching for answers.
We are aghast, however, at how Marcello has
taken a turn for the worse, to put it mildly. Despite his great
looks and charm, he has become not merely shallow, but evil. His
evil, however, is not premeditated. He is lashing out in protest
at his own unhappiness and while his smile and wave at the Umbrian
angel indicates that he still has a spark of humanity he is in
a drunken stupor and no longer conscious enough to care much about
her. He has crossed over into an oblivion and whatever message
Fellini might have wanted to convey is pessimistic.
This is a work about fervor. It is about the
intensity and weight of life.
Marcello is magnificently attractive and has
a pretty good life. His fiancé is a great beauty. Sylvia
succumbs to his charms as does Madallena and Fanny, a nightclub
dancer who takes his father to her apartment and who is obviously
one of Marcello's past lovers.
Sylvia is a remarkable force of nature and
when she answers a cat's howling even Marcello is amazed and astonished.
She contrasts greatly with Madallena, a much more complex woman.
They and Nadia are extremely strong, independent women in contrast
with the innocence of Emma and the waitress, but they all are
merely objects for Marcello.
The film is visually wonderful, full of great
tracking shots and compositions, and it has a marvelous and delightful
score by Nina Rota.
The evolution of Marcello's dark side is, of
course, accentuated by Steiner's suicide. If as sensitive and
erudite a man as Steiner not only kills himself but his two children,
what hope can there be for Marcello, and for us?
While this film goes beyond cynicism, existentialism
and hedonism, it is thoroughly engrossing, intellectual and psychologically
riveting but it is also coy and earthy.
It takes us beyond the vicarious and ruthless
sensationalism of the paparazzi to the inner torments of the soul.
There, life is neither sweet nor bittersweet, but pulses with
an energy of its own that drives our curiosities and makes us
mere mortals so curious.