Programme Notes: La Dolce Vita

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Please note that this article contains spoilers.

At a time when Italy was recovering from and reflecting on war, miraculous films emerged from the rubble. The country’s filmmakers took a documentarian-like approach to telling stories of class struggle. They cast non-professional actors and shot on location to emulate reality: a land and people wrecked by conflict. Neo-realism defined Italy’s national cinema – but then there was Federico Fellini. Contrary to the realist works of his contemporaries, Fellini’s films are like strolling through dreamscapes and fantasies, diving into worlds new, exciting and terrifying. 

In La Dolce Vita, the daunting new world the viewer explores over three hours is that of celebrity and luxury in Rome. The man who’s there for it all is Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a tabloid reporter who searches for stories at parties occupied by actresses and socialites, before nursing a hangover the next morning. He could be a movie star himself if he wasn’t writing about them – at one point, someone refers to him as ‘Gregory Peck’. La Dolce Vita did make a star out of its lead actor, as Mastroianni would continue to work with Fellini, including his role as an avatar of the director in 

Though Marcello yearns to escape into intellectualism, he’s seduced by the ‘sweet life’ that the film’s title alludes to. But that title is a misnomer, for the life Marcello leads is not sweet, but bitter. As Roger Ebert says, Marcello is a victim ‘condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not in that way.’[1]There’s a vapid emptiness that permeates; soulless eyes hide behind dark sunglasses. As one character remarks: ‘Our parties are famous for being first-class funerals.’ La Dolce Vita operates to expose the artificiality of the celebrity lifestyle, not just through the narrative but in its 80 grand, constructed sets. In this ersatz Rome, a party is but an ephemeral reprieve from death and loneliness. The startling cuts between dawn and dusk replicate the sensation of suddenly waking up from a dream, and the many opulent set-pieces often do feel like surreal dreams. The mornings are strange, and the memories of the previous night are hazy. 

Biblical imagery is littered throughout, from the purported sighting of the Madonna to the giant fish pulled onto the shore by the film’s end. In the opening scene, a helicopter lifting a statue of Christ flies over the ruins of post-war Rome, while Marcello and his photographer, Paparazzo (the originator of the word ‘paparazzi’[2]) follow in a second helicopter. Marcello’s helicopter eventually stops over a rooftop of women sunbathing, having departed from the old, desolate Rome to arrive at a new city consumed by excess. Everyday lives are glossed over for the privileged few with enough money to recuperate. Suffice to say, Fellini’s juxtaposition of drink-induced hedonism and religious morality was controversial: La Dolce Vita was condemned by the Vatican and was banned in Spain until Franco’s death in 1975.  

La Dolce Vita is emblematic of Fellini’s constant pursuit to challenge cinematic conventions. This is a film without a three-act structure, or any story at all for that matter, and it’s filled with loaded metaphorical images, equally lush and provocative. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, Swedish actress Anita Ekberg wades into the Trevi Fountain. The progression from an old to new Rome continues, as the waters of an ancient structure wash over a global attraction donned in an evening gown. Even at one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, your eyes remain on Ekberg who revels in her night-time baptism, unaware of her transgression. While filming the scene, Ekberg was apparently fine with standing in the fountain’s cold water, while Mastroianni needed a wetsuit and a bottle of vodka in his system to endure the plummeting temperatures.[3]

Even if you’ve never sat in a cinema or in front of a television screen to watch La Dolce Vita before, you have likely seen glimmers of it somewhere. Perhaps, you unknowingly saw traces of it in the works of other Italians, like Cinema Paradiso (Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore, 1966) or The Great Beauty (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2013). Or maybe you saw it in Lost In Translation (Dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003), which features Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson watching the famous scene at the Trevi Fountain together. Explaining La Dolce Vita’s influence on her film, Coppola said: ‘I saw that movie on TV when I was in Japan. It's not plot-driven, it's about them wandering around. And there was something with the Japanese subtitles and them speaking Italian – it had an enchanting quality.’[4]  

The magic of Fellini’s work traverses language and time. He imagined cinema that was fantastical and otherworldly, and manifested it fully with extravagant set-pieces, only to contrast them with overwhelming despair. ‘One should live beyond passion and emotion in the harmony found in perfect works of art,’ a character explains to Marcello, and yet the line seems almost self-referential. La Dolce Vita is a perfect work of art, not overly consumed by the sheer excess of celebrity, but actively searching for its emotional intricacies and contradictions. Populating this foreign world of glitz and glamour are a bunch of unhappy people with drinks in their hands and nothing to lose. Sixty years later and Fellini’s satire of a consumerist culture still feels entirely relevant today. With the film arriving in cinemas to celebrate the filmmaker’s 100th birthday, La Dolce Vita’s lasting presence in cinema is a testament to the immortal Fellini. 

Iana Murray

Freelance Writer January 2020

[1]Roger Ebert, La Dolce Vita,, 5 Jan 1997

[2]Philip French, Italian cinema’s sweet success, The Observer, 17 Feb 2008

[3]Duncan Kennedy, La Dolce Vita, 50 years and counting, BBC News, 5 Mar 2009


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