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La Dolce Vita

Directed by Frederico Fellini with Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Nadia Gray, Yvonne Furneaux, Anouk Aimée, Magali Noe, Alain Cluny and Lex Barker, black-and-white, 167 minutes, 1960

Cover of VHS tape edition

Cover of VHS tape edition of "La DolceVita" shows Marcello Mastroianni and Yvonne Furneaux


By Carter B. Horsley

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 Square.

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.

Mastroianni and Ekberg in fountain

Detail of still from film, showing Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in Trevi Fountain in Rome, used as frontispiece for Jerry Vermilye's "Great Italian Films" published by Carol Publishing Company, 1994

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, it's animalism."

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 beastly.

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.

This film ranks 7th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films list.

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