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La Dolce Vita

Director: Federico Fellini

Italy-France| 1960. English subtitles. Black and white. Anamorphic. 175 min.


Re-released in a new print, Federico Fellini’s most famous film became an international sensation when it opened in 1960. Surrounded by well publicised controversy—the Vatican’s attempt to ban it, the woman who spat on Fellini at the premiere—it was championed by the Left as an indictment of the ailing intellectual and ruling classes. Its title passed into common usage as a description of a certain lifestyle, and the surname of one of its characters—Paparazzo—inspired the name for a distinctive breed of aggressive photographers.
His many successes throughout the 1950s allowed Fellini to make films on a much larger scale, and in La dolce vita his visual imagination goes into overdrive as he paints a giant fresco of a decadent society. From its stunning opening shot of a statue of Christ hanging from a helicopter as it flies high over the ruins of Rome, to the closing scene of a dead giant fish beached in the grey light of dawn, the film ‘takes the temperature of an ailing society, a society that has every appearance of running a fever’ (Fellini). As many critics have observed, the filmmaker seems both fascinated and repelled by the spectacle of Rome’s decadent playthings as they tirelessly strut their stuff.
The starting point for La dolce vita was the character of Moraldo in I vitelloni (The Spivs), the Fellini alter-ego who at the end of the film leaves his home town and travels to Rome in search of greater things. The character became Marcello, a part specifically written for the actor Marcello Mastroianni, who became a key figure in Fellini’s later work. Marcello is a journalist who writes for a scandal magazine. He wants to become a serious writer, but he can’t resist the allure of the glitzy lifestyle, the easy money and readily available sex. He hangs out in the Via Veneto area of Rome, becoming sucked into its frivolous but vivacious world.
‘The star of my film is Rome, the Babylon of my dreams,’ Fellini said. Apparently, everyone in the film really was someone about the Roman scene, and the situations and locations are spot-on as representative of their time. Despite this basis in reality, La dolce vita was never intended as a realistic portrait of a city and its culture. As in all his later works, the world established by Fellini is a creation of high artifice, with many deliberately surreal features, among them the unforgettable sight of Anita Ekberg’s brainless, bosomy starlet cavorting in the nocturnal Trevi fountain. ‘La dolce vita is only a substitute title,’ Fellini said. ‘I wanted to call in Babylon, 2000 Years After Jesus Christ to bring out the element that is permanent, outside time and space, in a story that has been wrongly seen as controlled by contemporary phenomena.’ Later films such as Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Fellini’s Roma (1972) bear out this notion of being ‘outside time and space’.
Of La dolce vita, Leonard Bernstein commented: ‘After three hours of the most abject degeneracy we emerge on wings, from the sheer creativity of it.’ Creativity is the key. Fellini’s imagination is often comic (as in the magical and mischievous ecclesiastical fashion show in Fellini’s Roma), and often conveys hidden depths. He rarely just luxuriates in the societies he depicts, but thinks dramatically about how they operate. Far from being a scandalous artist, Fellini might always have been something of a traditional moralist.

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