La Dolce Vita (1960)

La Dolce Vita first published by Movie Gazette 

The picaresque antihero of La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s bittersweet portrait of the ‘good life’ in sixties Rome, is Marcello (Marcello Mastroiani), an intellectual who has given up serious writing to become a society journalist for a right-wing tabloid. His loving fiancée Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) wants to make a home with him and start a family, but Marcello cannot bring himself to settle down into conventional domesticity, distracted by the meretriciously decadent Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) or the magnetically vapid American starlet Sylvia (Anita Ekberg). As his job takes him from one party to the next, Marcello bears witness to, and participates in, the decline, indeed the disintegration, of all that is sacred in Italian society. Young children fabricate sightings of the Madonna before a baying press mob and a conniving church, Marcello’s estranged and elderly father (Annibale Ninchi) tries to relive his wild years in a long, dark night on the town, the aristocratic nobility mix it with foreign models and allow their estates to fall into ruin (when they are not converting them into brothels), and a party celebrating a woman’s divorce rapidly descends into a drunken orgy under Marcello’s own self-loathing direction. Only Marcello’s old friend Steiner (Alain Cuny) – a devoted churchgoer, loving father, doting husband, and patron of the fine arts – provides Marcello with any sort of anchor to the values of the past, but even Steiner recognises, with the most tragic of consequences, that there is no more place for such outdated mores in the fast-changing world around him.

Even if you are seeing La Dolce Vita for the very first time, so great has been its influence, and so prescient its vision, that many of its images will seem eerily familiar. Its opening sequence, for example, in which a helicopter hauls a giant statue of Jesus past waving rooftop sunbathers, not only encapsulates the film’s main theme – the incongruous clash of tradition with modernity – but has also inspired similar scenes in films as varied as 1991’s L.A. Story (in which the rootless postmodernity of L.A. life is signalled by a helicopter hoisting a giant model hotdog) and 2003’s Good Bye Lenin! (in which a helicopter lifting away a statue of Lenin figures the post-Wall westernisation of East Berlin). Fellini’s film may unfold in the Rome of the early 1960s, but his carnivalesque satire of a society obsessed with celebrity, scandal, salacious scoops and sideshow freaks still seems as relevant as ever today – even the paparazzi that have now become part of our daily life derive their very name from Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), the parasitic, boorish photographer with whom Marcello sometimes collaborates on his dumbed-down stories.

While in many ways La Dolce Vita plays itself out as an updated epilogue to Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, sanctimonious preaching is always kept at a distance thanks to the peculiarly ambivalent quality of Fellini’s moralism. For while the film may lament the passing of Italy’s cultural inheritance and church traditions, and its wilful loss of innocence (embodied by Marcello’s slide into cynicism), at the same time it seems to celebrate precisely what it deplores. Like Marcello, Fellini himself seems fascinated by the grotesque excesses of the modern world which his film portrays, and he mesmerises the viewer with the very sensationalism and extravagance that he shows to be so soul-destroyingly empty.

The result is a hybrid monster of a film – funny yet deadly serious, flippant yet deeply responsible, over-the-top yet impossibly subtle. In short, La Dolce Vita is a classic of decadence and debauchery, showing a life so sweet it just might make you sick.

Summary: A timeless, bittersweet carnival of severed roots, disintegrating values, lost innocence and dumbing down. Unmissable!


© Anton Bitel