La Dolce Vita (1960)

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Ennui, emptiness and envy in Fellini’s coolly satirical portrait of a hedonistic Rome

Director: Federico Fellini

Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Marcello Rubini), Anita Ekberg (Sylvia Rank), Anouk Aimée (Maddalena), Yvonne Furneaux (Emma), Walter Santesso (Paparazzo), Lex Barker (Robert), Magali Noël (as Fanny), Alain Cuny (Steiner), Nadia Gray (Nadia), Jacques Sernas (Divo), Laura Betti (Laura), Valeria Ciangottini (Paola)

It’s one of those films as much about everything as it is nothing. Fellini’s omnibus of interconnected shaggy-dog short stories follows Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a would-be novelist writing a gossip column, as he mixes with the great and the good in Rome. Casual affairs, Hollywood stars, nightclubs, drunken parties and would-be orgies – Rome is a whirligig of the shallow and meaningless, all wrapped up in a classic façade. La Dolce Vita was gloriously popular and hugely influential – it seemed to be casting a cynical eye over the 60s, even as they were kicking off – and remains possibly Fellini’s best-known and most popular film.

At its heart is Marcello. Gloriously played with a shallow suaveness smothering deep self-loathing by Mastroianni, Marcello has enough insight to understand the world he occupies is an empty and meaningless one – but not enough drive, discipline or determination to do anything about it. For all his dreams of becoming a novelist and artist, he’s all too easily seduced by the glamour and the hedonistic pleasures of Roman high society. When presented with choices, he invariably takes the easier one. He has enough soul to wish he had more of one.

Fellini lays out his journey through Roman night-life with a painterly skill – the frame is often full of fresco like images, taking in multiple characters at once, all preoccupied and busy with their own needs and wants. Fellini uses a superb mix of shifting POV shots to constantly place us in and then immediately out of Marcello’s shoes. Characters stare direct at the camera – are they looking at us or Marcello? Marcello arrives at Steiner’s house in a POV shot – but then Marcello walks into the shot and suddenly we are witnesses again. It’s a film where we are always reminded we are on the outside, like participants in a dream.

La Dolce Vita is long, but also spry. This is a city of people universally keeping ennui at bay, by a never-ending parade of parties and sex. While we might see and hear life-changing statements – declarations of love, resolutions to build a better life, the severing of personal relationships – these lead to nothing. Fundamental relationships and patterns of living remain unchanged across the (unspecified) period of time the film covers. Words come and go as easily as parties.

La Dolce Vita is constructed from seven short stories, each exploring a different aspect of Marcello’s empty, hedonistic existence. They cover: a sexual encounter with society heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) in the water-logged flat of a prostitute; a night Marcelo spends trailing Hollywood star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) across Rome; Marcello and other reporters reporting on a ‘miracle’ just outside Rome; a visit from Marcello’s estranged father; a party at an aristocrat’ faded palazzo with a failed encounter with Maddelena; finally a beach-house party where a jaded Marcello fails to initiate an orgy and collapses into something akin to a mini-breakdown, which he shrugs off. Intercut with this is Marcello’s friendship with Steiner (Alain Cury), the intellectual family-man Marcello aspires to be, who transpires to be as depressed and trapped as Marcello – with disastrous consequences.

These encounters are open to multiple interpretations: and part of the film’s strength is Fellini’s lightness in telling the story. Interpretation and significance isn’t forced upon the film: it’s long because it is stressing the repetition of its cycles. Each ‘short story’ is told with a pace and skill, frequently shifting in tone. Fellini will make you hoot with laughter or swoon with sensuality in one scene – and then shift uncomfortably in your chair the next.

Part of La Dolca Vita’s aim is to move Rome on from the tourist-centred attractiveness it had been given by a host of films from Roman Holiday on. It’s essentially marrying films like that with Rome Open City and Bicycle Thieves. It’s Fellini’s attempt to compare (and perhaps question) Rome’s classical cultural background with the hedonistic casualness of today’s world. It opens with a statue of Jesus being helicoptered across the outskirts of Rome towards St Peter’s. The statue is a glorious reminder of the power of Rome’s religious significance: but what follows it? A second helicopter, flown by Marcello and Paparazzo (his photographer), smirking and trying to pick up the numbers of the sun-bathing women waving up at them. New and old Rome intermixed, and not favourably.

The film is full of moments like this. The party at the aristocrat’s palazzo takes place in gorgeous grounds and rooms lined with busts of Roman emperors. At first it feels like a comparison between class and classlessness. But then you remember that ancient Rome was a hub of orgies and violence, and everything at this party would probably look pretty tame to the emperors watching.

The false miracle suggests affectations of Christianity are stage-managed and willingly performed at the dictates of the media. A priest may denounce the whole thing, but it doesn’t stop an army of people desperate to grab a piece of the action – from the media to ostentatious worshippers – descending on a small field, all of them willingly playing their expected parts. It only takes a downpour of rain to turn this devotional crowd into a panicked mass of people, blindly charging from shelter to shelter – with tragic results for one pilgrim. TV journalists stage-manage the crowd, give lines to members it and turn the whole place into a film-set.

As the film progresses, elements of classical Roman architecture slowly drift out, replaced by the harsher modernist buildings and blocks of flat (we’re subtly reminded, particularly with the arrival of Marcello’s father, mysteriously ‘absent’ for much of Marcello’s childhood, that a lot of these buildings were fascist in origin). Ironically the most famous sequence buries itself in classical architecture: Marcello’s night vainly following Sylvia (an alluringly playful Anita Ekberg, channelling Marilyn Monroe) in the hope of a sexual encounter (she remains wilfully oblivious of this). It culminates in Ekberg’s famous Trevi fountain dance – inspiring millions of would-be imitators.

Marcello’s life takes place in nightclubs and drunken parties, where social and sexual morals are modern and casual. Marcello’s most significant relationships are with Maddalena (Aimée is wonderfully archly cold), who toys with a profession of love only to instantly sleep with another man, and fiancée Emma (a clingy and desperate Yvonne Furnaux), who Marcello dutifully maintains a relationship with. Marcello wishes to see himself as a glamourous playboy, but he’s frequently on the backhand – picked up when wanted by Maddalena, played with by Anita and oppressed by Emma. We see him as often ignored and rejected as we do conquering.

Who Marcello really wants to be is the intellectual Steiner, who seems to have it all: fame, respect, and a loving family. It’s after meeting Steiner that we see Marcello doing the only novel writing in the film. Sitting in a beach café, he chats with a young waitress, Paola, who he compares to an angel in Umbrian paintings. Paola is also the last face we see in the film: waving to Marcello from a distance after his depressingly bitter failed orgy, as the guests gather around a leviathan washed up on a beach. She seems to be trying to ask him how the writing is going: he fails to understand and walks away. Paola feels like a moment of hope – a representative of a more fulfilled life of creativity and meaning – rejected by Marcello in favour of wallowing in pleasure. Fellini ends the film with Paola staring directly at the camera: is she making the offer of meaning to us instead?

It’s open to interpretation – as is the whole film. A big part of Fellini’s skill is not to hammer his points home, but let events speak for themselves, leaving the film open to interpretation. I see it as a sort of Dantesque parallel. Nearly every story is framed with characters moving up and down stairs – like the circular descent of Dante through Hell. Its structure seems to be broken into Cantos. And each step sees Marcello descend a little bit further – culminating in Mastroianni impotently ripping up pillows and spraying feathers over a laughing woman.

Is modern Rome hell? That might be a little bit too far. But it’s definitely a soulless purgatory. Paparazzo doesn’t care who he hurts to get the photo – a dead child or a grieving mother are all game. Marcello’s uses what talents he has for empty and cynical purposes and to seduce women. Everyone thinks only about their next hedonistic encounter. It’s a wonder that Fellini makes this as strangely enjoyable as it is: but then he is a master. And La Dolce Vita remains his most popular and most recognised work.

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