Right from the start of Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, we know we’re in for something different, something exciting, something audacious. Fellini’s choice of initial imagery announces immediately that this is a film about the contradictions of modern life. First, we get a helicopter carrying a large statue of Christ over Rome. It’s a powerful image with extensive connotations. This holy figure stands as the traditional and the sacred, and is slightly vulgarized in its absurdity here. But it moves on, and what follows further illustrates that things have changed: out with Christ, in with Marcello (Rubini in the film, Mastroianni in real life). He and his “photo reporters,” now known because of this film as paparazzi, take time away from their coverage of the transport to flirt with some bikini-clad sunbathers on a rooftop. We also see dilapidated ancient ruins transitioning into high-rise apartment buildings under construction. This is late 1950s Rome and this is the world of La Dolce Vita, a world—and subsequently a film—of contests and contrasts: old vs. new, traditional vs. modern, moral vs. immoral, authentic vs. fabricated.
La Dolce Vita’s episodic structure, a narrative preference Fellini would continue to employ (to a sometimes extraordinary degree), allows for the film to include a variety of scenarios and characters. Locations, from bustling sidewalks and cafes to exotic cavern-like clubs, give the film a strong sense of physical and temporal setting, ironically so in some cases since many sequences were shot in the famed studios at Cinecittà.
“As much an observer as he is a protagonist,” according to David Forgacs, Marcello is essentially our guide through this three hour odyssey. He is an extension of the audience (we’re frequently adopting his point of view to hammer the point home) and at the same time, he represents a certain personality type from the period. Indeed, as Forgacs also notes in an interview included as part of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of the film, La Dolce Vita is inseparable from its historical context of production.
Marcello and his similarly wealthy, disengaged, detached, and distraught friends are fed up and burnt out. Despite (or possibly because of) their money, cars, houses, and clothes, they remain unhappy. Something is lacking, something deeper in their soul. Theirs is an existential void. They make love and money, yet both are simultaneously worthwhile and worthless. It’s now perhaps a cliché the way they fill their lives with so much but remain so personally empty. Their jobs (if they even have one) are empty, their relationships (if they can even maintain one) are empty. This might be the sweet life on the outside, but inside it is despair.
This is no cautionary tale though. Fellini may express a commentary on the contemporary state of things, but there is no judgment or moralizing. “Everyone has a right to their image,” says an unhappy target of Marcello’s photogs. Perhaps so, but what of when that image has been socially constructed, built on a lie, built to conform to popular societal expectations? To whom does it belong then? Getting a picture of a prince at a nightclub and finding out what he had to eat; is this what a journalist does? That’s what Marcello considers himself. Others have different names for what he is.
In any case, Marcello embodies related traits of immaturity, irresponsibility, and selfishness, yet he can be exceptionally sympathetic. Through the course of La Dolce Vita, he emerges a strikingly tragic figure, a sad, lonely, and clearly confused man. He is, of course, not the only one. Obviously, his friend Steiner, who seemingly has it all together, is also adrift in this world where “a phone call can announce the end of the world.” Emotionally and spiritually vacant, they are searching; searching for commitment, innocence, an awakening. Far more disastrous than what Marcello endures, Steiner’s conclusion is the saddest part of the whole film. When Steiner shoots his two children before committing suicide, all hope is lost for Marcello, who had found a refuge in Steiner’s superficially content home life and is suddenly stunned to find that that happiness was just as fleeting and deceptive as his own. The semblance of normalcy he attributed to Steiner is shattered. “I don’t know anything, anything at all,” he tells a questioning detective. Perhaps the grass is not always greener.
Marcello isn’t always in a state of despair and confusion. He has his moments of actual passion. The time he spends with his father is sweet and pleasing. His dad is a fresh burst of contagious authenticity, in contrast to most others in the film. We see where Marcello gets his charm, and we see just how far from such a genuine simplicity Marcello has strayed. Even this, however, is a complex and illusory joy. While his father has a good time reliving his youth, old age creeps in and catches up. Where there was some optimism, there becomes another weary disappointment.
The extent to which Marcello wallows in decadence and depravity is emphasized in the final act of the film, as we finally witness his attaining of an unpleasantly over-the-top frame of mind. It’s obvious that Marcello is not well, that he has reached the end of his rope, and when he takes the “chubby, mountain farm girl,” obscenely rides on her back, pulls her hair, slaps her, throws water in her face, and then douses her with feathers from a pillow, it’s a tough scene to watch. Always prone to live on a whim, seeking adventure or at least a temporary gratification, Marcello must purge himself following the shock of Steiner’s violence. So he gives up and gives in.
As far as the multitude of other characters in the film, is there more of a force than Anita Ekberg’s Sylvia? Though really only briefly in the picture, she sets the fictional world of the film on fire. From the repeating of her descent down the airplane stairs, pandering to the photographers, to answering inane yet occasionally stimulating questions (“Is Italian Neorealism dead or alive?” a reporter asks. She, and Fellini, wisely don’t answer), to her dancing in the club, and to, finally and most famously, her jaunt through the fountain—the most iconic image in an iconic film full of iconic images—Sylvia temporarily takes La Dolce Vita to a whole other level. She is everything to Marcello; she is “home.” She is overflowing (in a variety of ways), and the jaded Marcello succumbs quickly to her allure, becoming a bumbling, stumbling awestruck child in her presence. Her lack of inhibition is a shock to his system.
Finally, there’s the conclusion of the picture, a brilliantly ambiguous finale. What is the significance of the sea creature? What is the young girl saying? Why can’t Marcello understand? These questions ensure that the film doesn’t really end with this last scene. Like so many great works of filmic art, La Dolce Vita continues to live on as a direct result of its depth and its never-ending interpretations. At nearly every turn, there seems to be some symbolism, a meaning to be constructed, a significance in structure, style, and image to be discerned.
The cache of supplemental materials on this Criterion disc all shed unique light on this controversial film. The visual essay by filmmaker :: kogonada examines Fellini’s use of point of view, comparing and contrasting certain shots (especially the enigmatic final one of the young girl) to those in The 400 Blows, Summer with Monika, and Breathless. Lina Wertmüller, who was an assistant director on the film, recalls her time with Fellini and sort of counters :: kogonada’s visual analysis by noting that, “Everyone thinks what they want.” Even the interview with Fellini himself ironically illuminates the film while also downplaying its varied implications. Probing interviews with Fellini are always interesting because you do truly want to hear what he has to say, to see if he explains anything or gives some personal insight into such and such a scene’s significance. This he sometimes does, but then he states, as he does here, “Never trust what I say in interviews.”
Fellini’s key collaborators were firmly in place by this point, and they do some of their best work with this film. The great Italian cinematographer Otello Martelli works as equally well with the artificial backdrops and garishly decorated interiors as he does outdoors in the sun (the cafe with shafts of light coming through the thatched ceiling and walls has always been a favorite example). Nino Rota’s upbeat and glorious score is, as with all of his compositions for Fellini, synonymous with the tone of the film, its characters, and Fellini’s own visual orchestration. And Piero Gherardi’s superb production design perfectly renders a highly stylized time and place while his costumes beautifully adorn individuals concerned themselves about being highly stylized in this time and place. Gherardi won an Oscar for the former and was nominated for the latter. La Dolce Vita earned Fellini his fifth writing Oscar nomination and his first for direction. Most famously though, and arguably most important given its stature on the world stage and its signifying of a global shift in modern cinema, La Dolce Vita was also awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
In many ways, this would be Fellini’s last grounding in reality. With La Dolce Vita, it is as if he used up his last semblance of a semi-normal, subtle, even realistic existence. Real life was itself becoming Felliniesque, with spontaneous chaos and eccentric individuals, so the maestro would have to expand his creative boundaries—and did he ever!
There is, in the end, no denying La Dolce Vita’s impact. It wasn’t just a film. As Antonello Sarno contends, it was (and still is) a “phenomenon in culture, fashion, and society.”