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La Dolce Vita
The Sweet Life (or The Good Life)
Directed by Federico Fellini — 1960, Italy — 175 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 2.35:1 — Comedy/Drama
IN BRIEF, visionary, satirical masterpiece about a tabloid journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) caught up in the titillating whirl of Rome’s decadent high society.
One of Fellini’s masterpieces, La Dolce Vita (1960) – about the exploits of a tabloid reporter (Marcello Mastroianni) among the jet set of modern Rome – is among the most influential and wildly entertaining films ever made. Both a commercial and artistic triumph, its many awards included the Palme d’Or/Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Best Foreign Film from the New York Film Critics Circle, and an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. It sealed Fellini’s reputation as one of the world’s premiere filmmakers, even as it solidifed the careers of its extraordinary cast, including Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée and Anita Ekberg. As much as any film from its period, this one remains pulsatingly alive, both for its brilliant style and its timeless theme of searching for a “sweet life” (to translate the title literally) which is also authentic and good. The more, and the more closely, you look at this picture, the more you will find to enjoy, savor, and think about (on this latest viewing I was struck by how Fellini subtly uses same-sex characters to enrich the film’s scope). Or you can just sit back and let it gush over you, like the waters of the Trevi Fountain in one of its many classic scenes. Koch Lorber Films’ two-disc Collector’s Edition features a breathtaking DVD restoration with flawless image (not a single scratch or speck of dust remains) and sound, plus several supplemental features (jump to review of the DVD).
Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastrioanni) is a thirtyish would-be “serious writer” who makes his money as a gossip columnist always sniffing for the next big scandal along Rome’s fashionably notorious Via Veneto. We follow Marcello through seven days, and especially nights, of his wild exploits with a series of women. There’s the bored socialite Maddalena (Anouk Aimée — Demy’s Lola) whose thrill-seeking brings them to bisexual prostitute Ninni (Adriana Moneta); his suicidal girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux); the curvaceous Swedish-American starlet Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) who after an unforgettable press conference and Vatican visit goes with Marcello for nocturnal jaunts involving a swingin’ night club, wild dogs, a lost kitten, and a dip in the Trevi Fountain; wealthy Nadia (Nadia Gray) who celebrates the annulment of her marriage with an orgy; and an angelic teenager named Paola (Valeria Ciangottini). During this fateful week, Marcello also deals with several men, including his bouncy photographer Paparazzo (Walter Santesso — yes, Fellini’s character is the source of the word paparazzi); on-location actor Frankie Stout (Alain Dijon) who now looks like a satyr; Sylvia’s boyfriend Robert (Lex Barker) who used to play Tarzan; Marcello’s brilliantly cultured mentor Steiner (Alain Cuny); even an unexpected visit from his estranged father (Annibale Ninchi), whom Marcello fixes him up with his own ex-lover Fanny (Magali Noël). Throughout his adventures, which range from bawdy to heartbreaking to shocking to hilarious, we see Marcello’s fantasies and fears reflected in the dizzying world around him, which extends from Rome’s poorest citizens to its celebrities, intellectuals and nobility. Like Marcello, this world – our world – is torn between past and future, between “sweet” hedonism and nourishing authenticity.
Regarding ‘plot spoilers,’in discussing the film I do need to reveal two or three, but not all, of its major surprises – just so you know.
Federico Fellini’s (1920–1993) La Dolce Vita draws varying interpretations like a magnet does iron fillings: some people see it as a slice of life documenting a very particular time and place (Rome, 1960), others find it a fiercely moralistic vision with universal significance; some believe it’s just a lark with Fellini thumbing his nose at the modern world. I think there’s some truth in all of those approaches, but this is also a cinematic masterpiece. Few films are as rich – and provocatively entertaining – as this visual, dramatic and comic feast. Fellini’s genius is in the formal skill with which he employs his vast design, even as he fills the picture with so much in-your-face life that it sometimes seems to burst out of the frame.
First, let’s briefly look at the film’s historical context. Around 1960 European film was at a zenith, finally breaking free of the Realist strictures of the years following World War II. The French New Wave was already creating seismic shifts throughout the cinematic world, as Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour), Godard (Breathless), Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and others were redefining the medium’s potential — as was Fellini, in a different way, with La Dolce Vita; while to the north Bergman (Through a Glass Darkly) was further concentrating his rigorous style. In Italian cinema the great postwar Neorealists Visconti (Ossessione), Rossellini (Rome: Open City) and DeSica (The Bicycle Thief) were joined by a new, more experimental generation led by Antonioni (L’Avventura), Pasolini (Accattone), and the most popular of all, Fellini, who had already reached a huge international audience, even winning the first two Best Foreign Picture Oscars, for La Strada in 1956, Nights of Cabiria in 1957.
Fellini is the most flamboyantly autobiographical, and visionary, filmmaker to emerge from postwar Italy. La Dolce Vita is the pivotal film of his illustrious career, marking the point where he moved away from the intense pathos of his earlier Neorealist films, mentioned above, starring the waiflike Giulietta Masina (whom he married) and toward the increasingly surreal, circus-like extravaganzas he would create, including 8-1/2, Juliet of the Spirits, and Fellini Satyricon (which I consider a masterpiece, although that is a minority opinion). That 1969 film not only bookends Fellini’s miraculous decade, it serves as a pre-Christian, not to mention phantasmagorical and overtly gay, reinterpretation of La Dolce Vita (Fellini himself has stated that these two films form a pair). But La Dolce Vita is so original, so funny, so poignant, so rich with both clarity and paradox, so completely engaged with the full spectrum of life – from every strand of society, and even from a vast span of historical periods (as we’ll see) – that it now seems not only Fellini’s defining film but one of cinema’s too.
Fellini’s distinctive style – which first emerges clearly in this film – is colorful, poetic and sharp, yet flexible enough to accomodate riffing from pictures as diverse as Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, and Youssef Chahine’s Egyptian Story (all of which are admitted homages to 8-1/2) to even a recent super-glossy techno-thriller like The Cell. A couple of incredibly divergent pictures which perhaps borrowed elements directly from La Dolce Vita are Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), in the backstory of the Tippi Hedren character’s infamous dip in that “fountain in Rome,” and Fassbinder’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970), with the mystery of Steiner’s rampage becoming the dramatic, and psychological/sociopolitical, focus of the entire film.
One rarely explored, but significant, aspect of the picture is how Fellini interweaves lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) characters throughout the entire film, from the first minutes to the last. Although I had not isolated this element until now, I was surprised by how pervasive the LGBT dimension is.
Some of the LGBT characters are seen in featured roles, like the bisexual prostitute Ninni (at the time Fellini could only imply what happens in her flooded-out apartment between her, Marcello and Maddalena: he discreetly cuts from the three together in the bedroom to the following dawn, when they are outdoors); others are bit parts like Ninni’s pimp who is always seen riding on a motorcycle with his boyfriend wrapped around him. The minor character Pierone (Gio Staiano), a funny and ingratiating blond gay guy (dubbed an “Effeminate Man” in the film’s full credits), pops up every other sequence or so. He even helps tie the narrative structure together, since he appears within the first couple of minutes at the swanky night club (he’s the one able to tell Marcello that the celebrities were having “Valpolicella” – a vitally-important factoid if you’re a gossip column), reappears at various times, then in the final sequence leads the revelers to crash their cars through the locked gates of Nadia’s palatial villa.
If you wanted to go even further, and look for a structural parallel employing body builders (!), you would not be disappointed. Fellini begins the film’s second scene (right after the statue of Jesus is helicoptered over Rome) with a wildly campy Siamese dancer (like The King and I on acid) flanked by two well-oiled, muscular black guys; at the end the film, as the “orgy” is winding down, we have Marcello, during his big embarrassing drunk scene, toying (non-sexually, I think) with the body builder called Tito, who soon thereafter bares his chest and – in a surprise to many – makes a beeline for the delighted Pierone. The film’s next – and final – scene, on the beach, features plenty of beefcake in all sexual-orientational varieties. You can find many more GLBT characters throughout the film, often in the backgrounds of night club and party scenes, including two or three lesbian couples, several gay men of all ages and social classes, and a bevy of drag queens.
This visibility is especially noteworthy in a film made over forty years ago, but even more so is the fact that the GLBT characters are completely integrated into the film’s world. They are no better, and certainly no worse, than anyone else. Rather than stereotypical symbols of “decadence,” Fellini gives his GLBT people humanity. A touching, but brief, example comes in the “orgy” scene when one of the drag performers is injured, and Fellini gives us a moment to watch his partner and Tito care for him, with Pierone nearby.
On a larger thematic level, looking at same-sex experience may help unravel the film’s greatest enigma: why does the elegant Steiner, who seems to have the ‘sweetest’ life of anyone (and whose tony soirée is the film’s exact mid-point), kill his children and then himself? Later I will look in depth at Steiner, and how he helps crystallize the film’s social and moral vision.
Although I’m not attempting to “out” Fellini (I don’t know enough about his private life), some critics and historians have suggested that his sexual nature is complex (can’t you already see a gossip columnist like Marcello poking around for sensational ‘clues’!). For instance, the admittedly autobiographical character of the self-contained writer Moraldo in I Vitelloni (1954) can be read as gay (despite his whacky ‘rat pack’ friends, his deepest connection is with the teenage boy he meets alone several times at night, and who sees him off in the final scene); in fact, Fellini had originally intended La Dolce Vita to pick up Moraldo’s story in Rome – and you can see much of that character in his “replacement” Marcello. Also, I believe that Fellini Satyricon is the greatest gay-themed film yet made; no other picture has such an exuberant, diverse profusion of openly GLBT characters (as the ads touted, “Before Christ. After Fellini”), and the two leads are as complex psychologically as they are ethically (it’s also a masterpiece of filmmaking on every level). And if you start looking for GLBT characters in Fellini’s other films, you will find them all over the place, although most often on the margins. The filmmaker’s biographer John Baxter has written that “Though Fellini and Masina shared a house, they occupied separate floors and had very different friends. Fellini flirted overtly with women but made his closest relationships with a succession of young gay assistants, among them Pier Paolo Pasolini….” (this summary comment comes from Baxter’s essay on Juliet of the Spirits in the Criterion Collection DVD). Although an artist’s sexual orientation is never their sole defining characteristic, it can certainly shed considerable light on their creations. In any event, the GLBT motif running – and at times dancing – throughout La Dolce Vita is an integral part of the whole film, which of course encompasses a multitude of other themes.
Fellini enriches the picture’s immense thematic complexity through a kaleidoscope of conflicting philosophies of life, even as he refracts everything through layers of humor and paradox. This film is so powerful – and genuinely entertaining – because Fellini binds his thematic concerns with his characters’ emotional complexities.
Intriguingly, Fellini sometimes blurs the line between the real and the fictional. He cast real-life counterparts for the background characters, from members of the nobility to drag performers to characters using the names of the people who played them (like Iris Tree who was the poet named Iris at Steiner’s party). When a reporter looks at the sleeping, hungover Robert (Lex Barker), Sylvia’s boyfriend, he remarks that he “can’t believe he used to play Tarzan.” Lex Barker did in fact play Tarzan in fives films (1949–53) and, in a story which Marcello’s readers would have gobbled up, was divorced by Lana Turner after he allegedly molested her young daughter (who later murdered another of her mother’s lovers) and fled to Europe, where he remained for the rest of his life, often playing cowboys in German-made Westerns: how La Dolce Vita is that! More to the point here, Anita Ekberg’s character Sylvia is supposed to be very much like her sexy offscreen persona, which of course was manufactured by publicists of the Marcello stripe. But then Fellini gives Sylvia layers of idiosyncracies which make her both more real and more symbolically charged. One of my favorite scenes is when Sylvia howls to the offscreen wild dogs: I can actually imagine a real-life dog lover doing that since the canines are a safe distance away, but it also makes Sylvia even more a metaphor of deep, lusty, irrepressible – yet melancholy – Nature. (Cat lovers don’t despair, because in the next scene she’s cooing over a lost little kitten.)
Although there are many dramatic scenes of searing honesty (including those between Marcello and Emma; Marcello and his father – in a film with over a hundred named parts Fellini never gives us Mr. Rubini’s first name, which underscores the impersonality of their relationship; Marcello and Steiner; Marcello and Steiner’s widow), what gives the film much of its unique (dare I say Felliniesque) quality and momentum is its incredibly rich vein of humor. In the several densely-composed crowd shots, you can be sure that Fellini has tucked away at least a few hilarious details, whether it’s an outrageous hat or a pair of immense bejeweled sunglasses or a collar a third as tall as the woman wearing the dress – those campy fashions were probably exaggerations even at the time – to a huge woman dancing with a tiny man (there are several instances of that ‘gender stereotype’ gag throughout the film). But the element which Fellini deploys throughout the film with the most revealing, and entertaining, force is wit.
Wit, including paradox, is perhaps the most audience-pleasing way to express complex understanding. Wit can reveal the truth behind contradictions, and hypocrisy, then give us release through laughter (although I’m not sure if even the most piercing wit-meister of the last two centuries, Oscar Wilde, took much comfort from that in his jail cell, convicted of “crimes against Nature”). While Fellini is very much an equal-time – sacred and profane – social critic, the Roman Catholic Church rarely escapes his satirical lens. An example of how Fellini uses cinematic means to make his point, without a line of interpretive dialogue, is in the scene at the Vatican where Sylvia – in a hilarious high-fashion riff on clerical garb, Marcello, and their cohorts climb up endlessly endless narrow spiraling stairs, often with the camera on skewed angles. However architecturally accurate this set may have been, on a visual and symbolic level it clearly suggests the folly, as well as the repetitive and tightly constricting nature, of organized religion (out of respect, it should be noted that some people do not share the filmmaker’s critical view). Fellini has made this scene as hilarious as it is pointed. Wit – in its cutting through tangled obscurities with imagination and lightness – seems a possible source of salvation in Fellini’s world… and it can be really funny too.
e of countless examples of contrasting parallelism throughout the film, Fellini’s other most scathing criticism of religion comes in a scene laid in a vast, barren field during the fake “Miracle,” in which hundreds of hopeful pilgrims have come hoping to see the Madonna appear via two “Lying Children” (as they are described in the full credits). We hear the pious-faced young brother and sister giggle at one point, as they lead the mass of adults from one spot to another to another. (This is one of the most virtuosic scenes in any Fellini film; it also connects with two of his other greatest works, bringing to mind the church sequence in Nights of Cabiria and looking ahead to the final scene in 8-1/2: the vast circular movement of the pilgrims La Dolce Vita looks ahead to the round-and-round parade of characters at the end of his next film.)
One element which unites these two superficially dissimilar (narrow stairwell versus sprawling field) but thematically identical (the follies of religion) scenes is that Fellini knows how to deploy his camera – and sometimes costume and set design – to distance us from the action. Let me add that while Fellini sometimes literally looks down at his subjects, through high-angle shots, I never feel that he is snidely ‘looking down’ at humanity. Fellini seems, throughout his body of work, an artist who genuinely cares about and loves people, even in his most trenchantly satirical moments (and there are a lot of them in this film). Fellini uses wit to expose social and psychological deceptions which keep people from finding their authentic, if not always “sweet,” lives. But he also shows his deep understanding of the frailties and foibles which give rise to such dysfunctions in the first place: Marcello, Emma, Steiner – in fact, all of his characters – clearly long for the genuinely connective and integrative essence of what Sylvia blithely says, in her big interview (producing the requisite sound bite), are the three most important things in life: “Love, love and love.” What can be so funny, and heartbreaking, is that we see more clearly than they do that they’re barking up the wrong trees.
Although wit is one of Fellini’s primary techniques, on a larger structural level he uses overarching narrative patterns. Some people have accused this obviously episodic film – made up of about a dozen major sequences covering seven days and nights (with a definite emphasis on the nights) – of being ‘loose,’ even formless: but nothing could be further from the truth. It boasts a brilliantly, if subtly, organized structure, one of the most ingenious of Fellini’s, or any filmmaker’s, career.
The film is both linear in its overall forward movement (for instance, there are no flashbacks) yet non-traditional in its episodic form which depicts a vast range of characters and milieus, from the wealthiest (second-tier movie stars, intellectuals, the minor nobility) to the working class (Paola) to the poorest (the pilgrims at the “Miracle”). Before I share my thoughts on the mirror-like form of the film, I want to look at the connections between its narrative structure and music.
Fellini, who not only loved music but knew a great deal about it, employs what’s called a rondo form in organizing this film. In a rondo a principal motif (here the series of pivotal nocturnal scenes at night clubs or parties) is repeated several times, interspersed with a much more varied series of subordinate themes (the many scenes set at dawn, which very different in tone, thematic inflection and even length than the recurring night-time sequences). If I may add one more ‘note’ about Fellini and music: you can also see why his films have adapted well to the musical stage – with his larger-than-life characters and that unique blend of pathos and comedy – with Nights of Cabiria becoming Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, and 8-1/2 as Nine (trivia buffs take note: Lionel Bart, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for Oliver!, also did the same for a later flop musical of La Strada). Although not an adaptation of any of his films, you can see Fellini’s influence on one of the three or four landmarks in musical theatre history, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (1971; book by James Goldman), with its evocative shiftings between present and past, reality and opulent fantasy, and its complex moral view. There is also a good deal of La Dolce Vita in Sondheim’s Company (1970; book by George Furth), both in its episodic but carefully-controlled structure and especially in the central character of Robert, who could be Marcello’s American twin brother. Were La Dolce Vita ever to strut its stuff on Broadway, Sondheim is the only artist who could do dramatic and musical justice to all of its layers.
Even more intriguingly than the use of rondo is that, when looked at in the broadest structural terms, the film’s overall form mirrors itself. And that is a revelatory device for a film in which the main character does not grow but rather narcissistically falls back into himself. Marcello’s “development” is the opposite of growth, as he ultimately gives up on his literary ideals and, artistically and even emotionally, implodes. In nuts and bolts terms, each of these four letters indicates a major structural/thematic element, we see the plot unfold this way: A-B-C-D-C-B-A.
The film begins (“A”) with portraying Marcello’s relationships with three individualized (arche)types of women (the worldly Maddalena, the unselfaware and unstable Emma, and the goddess-like beauty Sylvia; of course, these are also universal types of people regardless of gender); it ends with a collective “orgy” in which individuals, and gender, become increasingly blurred. The second major dramatic unit (“B”) concerns false supernaturalism, with first the “Miracle” in the field, then much later the parallel “occult” scene in the seance and ghost hunt at the castle. Flanking the center we have the two father figures (“C”) – first Steiner, then later Marcello’s literal father. At the structural center, we have the quiet but sexually charged scene between Marcello and the innocent teenage girl Paola (“D”), who returns in the closing moments of the film and provides the evocative, mysterious final image. This schema is of course reductive of the film’s countless, often brilliantly evocative, details, but Fellini does seem to be thinking in large structural terms – even as he folds them back onto themselves – as you can see in this schematic:
- A (individual, diverse types of women: Maddalena, Emma and Sylvia)—
- B (“supernatural:” “Miracle” in the field) —
- C (father figure: Steiner) —
- D (mid-point: Paola) —
- C (Marcello’s actual father) —
- B (“supernatural:” seance and “ghost hunt” at the castle) —
- A (collective “orgy” and blurring of identity and gender; Paola on the beach).
An example of how Fellini gives an organic feel to his overall structure can be seen in his introducing Steiner before the “Miracle” scene, and then after the “Miracle” exploring his character through the dinner party. Then much later, when we learn of Steiner’s homicide and suicide, Fellini forces us to reevaluate everything he’s told and shown us about the man and his role in the film.
As a gifted dramatist, Fellini (who co-wrote virtually all of his films) knows the importance of conflict, both for defining characters and developing themes. La Dolce Vita is an endlessly fascinating whirl of competing worlds and world views, with resonant conflicts existing within and between both the major sequences and, of course, the characters themselves. While the film could hardly be more contemporary, yet it embodies mythic principles on a grand scale. This is a world being torn at by both ‘pagan’ and Christian, ancient and modern (and post-modern), conformist and liberationist forces at every turn. Although these conflicts are buried within the characters and larger drama, their ongoing smackdown is never far from the surface. Perhaps one reason this film continues to be so riveting is that those conflicts are as much with us today as they were 45 years ago, or even 450 years ago in the Renaissance. Its art and architecture fill this film and remind us of a time when the Dark Ages were ending (although not without a fight) and reason, individuality, even sensuality, were again coming into their own. (To see how incisively Fellini here embodies the many contradictory, even warring, attitudes towards sex throughout early ’60s Italian society, see Pasolini’s illuminating documentary Comizi d’Amore/Love Meetings, which features dozens of interviews with people from every part of the country and all backgrounds.)
Fellini is remarkably honest in never reducing these deeper forces into clear-cut, and cheap, opposites. For instance, Fellini parallels the classic opening scene, of the huge Jesus statue being flown by helicopter over Rome (with Marcello and Paparazzo in another chopper not far behind), with the final scene on the beach in which the party-goers haul in a huge sea creature from the depths. There, in the opening and closing moments, we see the poles between which the action moves: Spirit and Nature. But is it that simple? Of course not. The statue is huge, ungainly, tacky (talk about kitsch), and always seems in danger of swaying so far that the cords will break and it will fall.
And what about that “sea monster” (as the post-partyers call it), which looks like a flounder on steroids? It comes from the depths of the sea (maybe even of time, since it appears primeval – as does its ‘cousin’ in Fellini Satyricon), and hence Nature, and it’s literally out of its depth (like almost all of the characters in this film). But there is a remarkable dignity, even soulful wisdom in its piercing eyes. It also raises some intriguing, and unanswered, questions which reflect deeper concerns of the entire film: Is it alive? What is its gender (the entire final “orgy” is rife with gender confusion – or redefinition, if you prefer – and climaxes with Marcello covering a woman in feathers, literally turning her into a chicken/woman: shades of the final shot of Tod Browning’s Freaks!). The fish-thing also exposes Marcello’s sad lack of curiosity (how could anyone not be interested in this creature?) even as it highlights the childlike, and for Fellini redemptive, sense of wonder of the so-recently jaded party people. On yet another level, it may not be so far removed from the Jesus statue as one might think: recall that for two millennia the fish has been a universal symbol for Christianity, since the Greek icthus (fish) is used as an acrostic: Iesous (Jesus) CHristos (Christ) THeou (of God) Uiou (the Son) Soter (the Savior): even today you can’t miss those bumper stickers. That’s a fairly grand unifying thematic idea, and although I’m not sure if Fellini consciously intended it, I did want to (very tentatively) share it. But the film is filled with countless instances of the tug between ancient and modern values, even as it strives to discover some kind of liveable balance among all the competing forces (as I’ll discuss in the final section below).
Fellini employs characters, both female and male, as types, which allows a huge spectrum of thematic possibilities. The women Maddalena, Sylvia, Emma, Ninni, Fanny, Steiner’s wife, Nadia, Paola, and many more; the men Marcello, Paparazzo, Steiner, Marcello’s father, Robert, Frankie, to name a few; and the people who playfully scoff at gender roles. Each character is fully particularized and realized, through writing, direction, and performance. You could spend dozens of pages discussing each one of them, and many others. Below I will look at a few of these individual characters, but first I want to note that structurally they function as groups, both socioeconomic (the wealthy: Maddalena, Steiner and his wife, Nadia; celebrities: Sylvia, Robert; middle class: Emma, Paparazzo, Robert’s father; the poor: Ninni, Paola) and thematic, including a major split between what I noted above, the ‘profane’ and the ‘sacred.’
Fellini tips his hat that he’s playing Classical off Christian values by the names or features he gives to several characters. On the ‘pagan’ side we have the (relatively) more sexually open Sylvia (from the ‘sylvan’ forest world of classical myth), Ninni (a diminutive of ninfa, “nymph”), the satyr-like Frankie Stout, and the countless revelers who populate the seemingly endless nightclubs and parties. Then there are the (relatively) less sexually free characters connected with Catholicism: Maddalena (from Mary Magdalene, who as a sinner perhaps connects with the ‘pagan’ world but who as someone close to Jesus is also sacred), Paola (name derived from St. Paul), plus the many nuns who glide throughout the film, and the hundreds of pilgrims at the “Miracle.” So not only is the narrative structure split, as we’ve seen, so are the two thematic clusters of characters. Not all ‘high seriousness,’ Fellini seems to have included at least one in-joke among the names: Pierone recalls the already (in)famous Pier Paolo Pasolini, Fellini’s openly-gay friend, protégé, and recent collaborator (with his first-hand knowledge of the demimonde, he reportedly wrote Nights of Cabiria’s streetwalker scenes).
At least as brilliant as the way Fellini uses symbolic names is how he keeps all of these characters, from the leads to the tiniest bit parts (and there are dozens of them), vital and real. They stay with us long after the film ends. So instead of some cheap allegory, which at best would have kept us yawning over who symbolized what, Fellini – literally and figuratively – fleshes out an entire world on a scale which would have given even Balzac pangs of jealousy… and delight.
Paradoxically, the central character – Marcello – is the film’s least involving figure. Yes, that is a tribute to the enormous talent of both Mastroianni and Fellini, who create exactly the burned-out, self-deluding – yet intriguing – cipher which the film needs to explore its themes. Mastroianni created a similar type of character in Antonioni’s 1961 La Notte (he played world-famous novelist as hard and cold as the carefully-framed modern architecture which surrounds him); but in 1962 the actor created the ingratiating lead in Fellini’s next masterpiece, 8-1/2, about a director who can’t finish his latest movie (compare that to Marcello being unable to complete his ‘literary masterpiece’). Marcello’s last name seems less immediately symbolic than some of the others, although Rubini does mean “rubies,” those beautiful, precious gems which some people may see as materialistic distractions to a higher moral life (happily, Fellini never gets that preachy). More to the point is that the skinny teenage nobleman, at the castle party, upon hearing “Rubini” makes a crack that it is a “common name” – and that’s about as close as Fellini comes to naming Marcello as a modern “everyman.”
When I think of Marcello, Yeats’ line in his apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming” comes to mind: “the center will not hold.” In fact, Marcello’s “development” throughout the film is actually a degeneration, a shrinking. He announces at the final “orgy” that he’s now abandoned his ideal of becoming a serious writer or even remaining in the demanding field of (yellow) journalism; he’s now going to become a publicist! Not only has jaded Marcello not found the “sweet life,” he continues to refuse to find out who he is himself. You keep wishing he’d read Nathanael West’s revelatory Miss Lonelyhearts, about the gossip trade, for some perspective on his day job. But self-blindness is his comic/pathetic tragedy, even as it’s one of the film’s most evocative strategies: Fellini leaves us without a protagonist whose ‘moral compass’ we can comfortably turn to (almost every Hollywood movie provides such a character, ready-made). No: we are on our own; we have to reach our own conclusions about what this world is, what it means to each of us individually.
The character who serves as the most resonant foil for Marcello – of course, on one level, every character is used to point up certain aspects of Marcello: this is his film, from first to last – is also the most enigmatic: Steiner.
A possible motive for the homicide/suicide of this stately man who seems to have it all – brilliant mind, gorgeous wife, two well-behaved children, wealth, and an apartment to die for – may shed light on more than this one enigmatic character’s tragic fate. (This pivotal character is played with enormous subtlety by Alain Cuny, a former set and costume designer who also distinguished himself as a character actor in Malle’s The Lovers, Fellini Satyricon, Buñuel’s The Milky Way, Rosi’s Eboli, and Godard’s Detective.) Steiner is important not only as a character who represents both the “sweet life” on a high materialistic and cultural plane (even on the church organ he moves effortlessly from an improvised jazzy piece to Bach’s best-known Toccata and Fugue: this man with his own subterranean longings even refers to the Bach piece as “mysterious… as if it comes from inside the earth”) and more of a father figure to Marcello than his biological sire, but as a key figure related to the structure. Not coincidentally, Fellini places Steiner’s fateful soirée at the exact center of the film (ninety minutes into the three hour picture). In this film with compassionate equality, on all levels, for GLBT people, this character stands in stark contrast. Steiner seems deeply-closeted and self-loathing, the embodiment of a person utterly divided against themself.
Why do I think Steiner is homosexual? Fellini plays his first scene with Marcello almost as a pick up. Look at Steiner’s body language: you can see him wanting to get close to the appetizing Marcello even as, with the slightest movements, he keeps pulling himself away. This tortured micro-dance becomes slightly more pronounced during their scenes together the night of Steiner’s party. In what may be yet another dig at organized religion, Fellini sets their first scene in a cavernous church, which even then connotated the hypocrisies of same-sex love being preached against by a clergy whose ranks are filled with (practicing or not) homosexuals. The setting also (playfully) suggests that while Steiner is a ‘Renaissance man’ whose many intellectual and aesthetic joys are modern, his conditioned self-loathing is medieval.
Fellini also hints at Steiner’s latent nature through several lines of dialogue. At his soirée, he tells Marcello’s long-suffering girlfriend Emma that, “You will be happy the day you know you love Marcello more than he loves you.” A few minutes later, when Marcello and Steiner are alone in his children’s bedroom, the older man notes that there are limits to how much he can help Marcello in his career as a serious writer – of course he must have a bulging Rolodex – since “I can only be your friend.” Moments later he talks about life as “only an outer shell, and that hell is hiding behind it.” Watching Marcello throughout the film, it seems likely that Steiner’s gushing praise for his writing is merely flattery… or worse. Steiner becomes the film’s most powerful embodiment of what Fellini sees as the fundamental problem with society, ancient or modern: self-deception – here on a catastrophic scale, as we see in perhaps the most shocking event in any Fellini film. Did you see the murders and suicide coming? I didn’t.
Steiner shows the tragic result of not coming to terms with who you are: the terrifying violence which erupts from leading an inauthentic life. Not only is Steiner’s suicide shocking, his murder of his young son and daughter takes on a horror both mythic (think of Medea slaughtering her own beloved children) and, at least at first, unfathomable. But although Steiner seemed genuinely to love them, even kissing them while they slept in their beds, on a deeper level they may have represented to Steiner the wrongness of the compulsory heterosexual lifestyle into which he’d wedged himself (at society’s tacit behest) – even as he secretly longed for a ‘bad boy’ like Marcello, one wrapped up in a pretty shell yet who was as profoundly self-contained as himself. As with so many of the names Fellini gave his charcters, this one is revealing. In German a Steiner is someone who works with stone – which seems so hard and resilient yet which can be crushed. Giving him a German name (although no trace of an accent) barely a decade and a half after the atrocities of the War – when fascist Italy colluded with Nazi Germany – gives yet another subtle, and perhaps sinister, resonance.
Fellini has a brilliant visual metaphor for Steiner’s world, which we see only after his death. For the first time, his apartment is bathed in light (the soirée, like most of the film’s major action, takes place at night) and we can observe what is outside of his window. With a little shock, we see the only obviously – and I suspect purposefully – fake element in the film (even the sea creature is credible): the vista of sterile modern buildings beyond Steiner’s penthouse is clearly a hand-painted cyclorama. It reveals its falseness only after the murder/suicide and in the harsh light of “day” – which itself is obviously provided by a sound stage at Cinecittà. But is deception when it’s made so obvious some kind of truth? That’s the sort of philosophical conundrum Steiner would have loved – but he’s no longer able to give us his opinion, since he’s sitting, immaculately dressed, in his fashionable living room with a tiny hole in his head.
As brilliant, and at times profound, as is Fellini’s use of narrative and character, his vision operates on every possible cinematic level, including image, sound and rhythm (both in how he moves the camera and actors, and in his editing). At his best – as here – Fellini plays all of the film’s elements off each other, both for our sheer sensory delight and so that he can explore his ideas with the greatest possible fullness and honesty.
Visually, La Dolce Vita is as magnificent as any Fellini film, not only for its costumes and sets but for the endless series of gorgeous, and thematically-rich, compositions. (Thanks to this painstakingly restored DVD, we can see the subtle gradations in the rich black and white camerawork.) In fact, Fellini had the Via Veneto recreated on a huge soundstage at Cinecittà studios, to allow for greater freedom of camera work. This film is perhaps the greatest achievement of director of photography Otello Martelli, who earlier shot Fellini’s Variety Lights, I Vitelloni, Il Bidone/The Swindle and La Strada. The cinematography is extraordinarily expressive. Notice how Fellini uses space to reflect on both the emotions and ideas of a scene. To take just a few examples, there is the cramped dark winding staircase in the Vatican, which not even the big round windows can illuminate it (which suggests Fellini’s critical view of organized religion; but the scene is kept out of terminal symbolic heaviosity by the buoyant performance of Anita Ekberg, in her sexy parody of clerical garb); the bare, unfinished apartment of Emma perceptively externalizes her own lack of focus and direction (clearly, being “in love with” Marcello isn’t nearly enough to fill her or anyone’s life, including Marcello’s own); the bare-walls minimalism of the (partly subterranean) Modernist hospital seems the antithesis of vitality and healing; the sprawling barren field of the “Miracle” reflects the gaping poverty – both economic and spiritual – of the hundreds of poor pilgrims; the castle, with its endless labyrinth of increasingly decayed chambers, suggests the rotten core of the often snotty second-tier nobles who live there. Virtually every one of the dozens of settings, from the most poverty-stricken to the wealthiest, is both scrupulously authentic and provocatively commentative.
Fellini also uses space in even more transcendent ways. We’ve already looked at the parallels between the first scene and last, but also consider what is happening spatially. The opening, with the Jesus statue hurtling over Rome, suggests a liminal state between sky (heaven) and earth, while the final scene, with its sea creature, takes us to a liminal state between earth and the sea – perhaps even deeper, since the creature embodies the ocean’s extremes (it looks most like one of those utterly alien lifeforms from the deepest marine trenches). The film has literally moved from the heights to the depths – but that has at least two very different meanings. On the hand, we have seen Marcello spiral ever further downwards into self-absorption and resignation. But on the other hand, we have joined with Fellini in going ever deeper into the hypocrisies of the profoundly, and with Steiner even deadly, “sweet life.” And although we have probably not come to any ethically reductive censure of that superficial existence – this film is as much a celebration of life, collective foibles and all, as it is a fiercely moral vision – still, we have gone very far down into what makes the modern world tick. And that’s in complete contrast to our anti-hero Marcello, who by the end has sealed himself within himself more tightly than ever.
Let’s take a look at just one representative, and extraordinary, shot, to see how Fellini uses image. This frame comes from the final party scene (often called the “orgy” scene, although it’s chaste by twenty-first century standards) at the palatial modern villa of Nadia’s soon-to-be ex-husband. After the revelers, led by our old friend Pierone, find the gates locked, they use their cars to crash throw. A moment later, standing outside the huge locked glass doors, Marcello prepares to throw stones so that they can all break in (unsurprising Marcello isn’t thinking of the old adage about not throwing stones in a glass house). Notice how strange this luxurious house seems, with its pervasive and sharply angular shadows. Fellini creates an evocative contrast between the flat silhouetted forms of the would-be partygoers in the middle third of the frame (which you’ll notice is divided into three equal parts) and the one area, on the right, which exists in deep space with cavorting revelers as far back as you can see. The angle is also strangely evocative, since we have both a cramped feel paradoxically in spite of the widescreen, 2:35:1 aspect ratio: you can feel the palpable tension between open and closed, inner and outer, the few areas which are clearly visible and the many which are obscure. Those tensions suggests the pull between realism and stylization which runs throughout the entire film, and which is not only visually riveting but thematically pointed in a film which is all about the split between authenticity and its deceptive opposites. Of course, there’s also playfulness in this shot (especially in the bobbing shadow figures at the center), and that reminds us that Fellini’s vision encompasses humor as well as beauty, mystery – and even fragility. We know that just as the car went crashing through the locked gate, in a second Marcello will smash through doors with rocks (you wonder if he knows the old adage about stones and glass houses).
Fellini is also a master of movement – of all kinds: by moving the camera and/or actors within shots, as well as in his meticulous editing. He also knows how to vary the film’s rhythms on all levels, both kinetic and visual, to maintain the momentum. That’s why this exuberant epic feels more like thirty minutes than its actual three-hour running time.
Notice how Fellini uses rhythm to add tacit commentary: the kinetic ever-upward movement in the Vatican stairway scene (mentioned above) which seems to go, metaphorically, nowhere; the constant movement at parties which can be seen as a mask for emotional stasis; the parallel circular motions which tie together the otherwise disparate “Miracle” and castle “ghost hunt” scenes (groups of people moving in circles is a visual/thematic motif which Fellini uses in many of his later films too). In the “Miracle” scene, notice how Fellini is able to shape a lengthy and huge scene, like the “Miracle,” and keep it both dramatically focused and utterly alive, responding both to the diverse emotional responses (of the announcer, of Marcello and Paparazzo, of the children and their ‘handlers,’ and even of the two hundred people who form a kind of group identity, as they follow the deceptive little boy and girl all over the enormous field). Fellini also knows how to use movement of the subtlest kind. In Steiner’s lengthy monologue, when he pulls Marcello aside (at the end of the soirée), notice how Fellini both gives full room to Alain Cuny’s performance even as he keep the smallest gestures of the actor moving in subtly diverse directions – and through the window we see those ominous, piercing searchlights slowly arcing in the night sky (they take on added meaning when we realize later how profoundly afraid of being ‘found out’ Steiner must have been). Movement is one of many elements which Fellini mastered to the point where he could use it with the precision of both a great composer and conductor.
Musical metaphors aside, the great Nino Rota’s score for this film is one of his most acclaimed and beloved. Few filmmaker/composer collaborations are as celebrated as that of Fellini and Rota, who collaborated on almost all of his films from The White Sheik (1951) to Orchestra Rehearsal (1979), the year Rota died. The jaunty melancholy of Rota’s scores for La Strada and Nights of Cabiria is a perfect musical complement to Fellini’s vision; but here Rota created perhaps his most breathtakingly eclectic score, with original compositions ranging from out-and-out rock ‘n’ roll to quietly aching Romantic melodies to abstract, almost subliminal, Modernist pieces. (He and Fellini also sprinkle the soundtrack with the widest possible array of pre-existing music, from classic to jazz to – at the “orgy” no less – “Jingle Bells”!) Although there is less ‘big theme’ scoring than in several other Fellini pictures, Rota’s music is no less effective. Here the music occurs as a natural part of the scene (rock at a wild night club) or quietly comments on the action (Rota counterpoints the hedonistic goings-on at the Via Veneto with a playful, almost childlike melody, producing a suggestively disjointed – and thematically rich – effect). One of the most powerful cues is also one of the subtlest. In the double break-up scene between Emma (she breaks up first) and Marcello (momentarily she comes back, they make up then fight again, until he literally throws her out of her car and drives off: cut to dawn, when she’s still there and his car careens to a stop and he motions her in – cut to after the make-up sex), Rota’s music provides little more than a throbbing pulse, but it captures both the deep emotional gulf and the tangled bond between the pair, in part by contrasting brilliantly with their (melo)dramatics. The stripped-down scoring also plays off the mysterious nature of the vast dark wasteland which surrounds them during the nocturnal part of this sequence (creepily, we’re not sure what’s out there in the sprawling darkness), then when we cut to dawn, the music is equally effective at reflecting what we now see is a vast barren field (like the one during the “Miracle” sequence only now completely devoid of people).
The music can also subtly highlight more general themes. For instance, under the opening credits Rota introduces an Asian-sounding pentatonic scale, which is not only beautiful in its own right but connects with the minor Asian motif which runs throughout the film. Fellini embodies this motif through costumes, characters, and dialogue: recall the “Siamese” dancers who immediately follow the opening scene, the discussion about Asia at Steiner’s dinner party, and the various “Oriental” characters in the background at nightclubs, parties, and the airport when Sylvia arrives.
Fellini also uses sound to great effect, as you can hear with the droning whir of the helicopter – which prevents Marcello from being able to ask the sunbathing girls for their phone numbers, or the soothing cadences of the sea in the final scene which both reflects the natural serenity of the angelic Paola and counterpoints the glossed-over inner turmoil of Marcello.
With all of this film’s virtuosity – in narrative construction, depth of character, visual and aural richness – it’s remarkable that Fellini never makes the style an end in itself. Rather it enriches the themes by modifying the tone – both the feeling and the ideas – of each scene; that is a major way that Fellini (implicitly) comments on the action. It should be noted that some viewers consider Fellini’s later films, beginning with the over-the-top (but fascinating) Juliet of the Spirits, to be more style than substance; others of course disagree. But in La Dolce Vita he is working at the height of his powers, brilliantly able to integrate every element into an incomparably rich – and wildly entertaining, not to mention socially and philosophically resonant – whole. Few films I’ve seen both capture and scrutinize so much of the incredible fullness of life.
Looked at as a whole, La Dolce Vita seems to be a film not only of epic satire, and profound psychological and social insight, but of balance – or at least the painful, honest attempt to achieve some kind of meaningful balance. We’ve looked at how Fellini presents (and plays with) ideas from the contradictory traditions of the fleshly ‘pagan’ life and sacred ideals. He embodies these dual, and dueling, forces in everything from the narrative form to the names he gives characters and, more importantly, their actions. The split is evident in the film’s weak but understandably human center: Marcello – a man forever at war with himself, between his highest aspirations, his desire for genuine love (which the “sweet life” makes it all too easy for him to miss, time after time after time), and expediency in money (his job as a gossip columnist instead of the “serious” literary career he’s aspired to), sex (one woman after another, each one – in her own way, as we see – equally a part of the ultimately unsatisfying “sweet life”), and what he values. Every character and situation revolves around Marcello (what a dream for a narcissist like this guy who even wears sunglasses at night). Not only does each encounter highlight another aspect of his personality, it further (literally) fleshes out Fellini’s exploration of the nature and price of hedonism – both its allure and its traps. From the most charitable possible perspective, Marcello’s coy resignation at the end – shrugging to Paola across the beach, saying he can’t hear her but making no effort to move any closer – is, in its way, a threadbare kind of balance.
But is there anyone in this film, whose credits extend to over 150 characters, who might embody a liveable and decent balance between the “sweet life” and the “moral life”? I think so, although it may come as something of a shock: Paparazzo.
Today we know all too well what his namesakes are like, but Marcello’s buoyant young photographer strikes me as the one character who basically has his life together. Actor Walter Santesso does a great job of making Paparazzo energetic without being offputtingly manic (Santesso acted in two dozen movies in the ’50s and ’60s, and since then has directed three films). Although he bristles when someone calls him a mere photographer (“I’m a photo journalist!”), that indicates that he both understands the broader nature of what he does and is proud of his work. Perhaps photographing his subjects allows him to remain sufficiently distant from their allure, hence allowing him to keep things in focus (pun intended). Paparazzo is flexible enough to get along well with everyone, from Marcello to Marcello’s father to most of the people he photographs, without seeming sycophantic. And when he hooks up with a woman, the dancer Gloria (Gloria Jones), neither he nor by implication Fellini makes anything of the fact that she’s black (in parts of the US in 1960 they could have been jailed). Throughout, there was an integrity about Paparazzo – who second only to Marcello has the greatest amount of screen time – which I did not see in any of the other major characters, either the women in his life (even Maddalena, the most seemingly ‘balanced,’ is quick to pick up a furtive new lover at the castle while Marcello futilely chases after her echoing voice: how symbolic is that!) or the men. Paparazzo, so comfortable in his own skin, is the antithesis of Steiner and, in a way, of Marcello too. There’s even balance in his name (as we’ve seen, this is a favorite symbolic technique with Fellini). Paparazzo echoes Pope (Papa) and Father (papà, an affectionate term for a father equivalent to the English ‘daddy’) as well as the spokes of a wheel (razzo), and there’s also a hint of the slang for street kid (ragazzo contracted to ra’zzo: Fellini would have read his friend Pasolini’s controversial early novel, 1955’s Ragazzi di Vita.) Feel free to groan as I lightly suggest that the spokes of his ‘wheel’ encompass both the sacred/Pope and profane/street life; and of course, like the milieu he covers, they’re always spinning around and around. In any event, down-to-earth Paparazzo seems to have made a life for himself which is both sweet and good, livable and satisfying.
Fellini ends his film on an almost mystical note, with the angelic Paola beckoning to an uncomprehending Marcello. (This was Valeria Ciangottini’s first role; she remains a steadily-employed actress.) Paola could hardly be more unlike that kitschy Jesus statue we saw dangling precipitously above Rome; and how unlike the strange creature which just washed up on the beach. And that may be the point: Fellini is showing us an image of a singularly human redemption – Paola is both ethereal and flesh and blood. Although we see her as an innocent, and idealistic, teenager, in her first meeting with Marcello in the cafe where she works, she also subtly flirts with him. Of course, he more overtly flirts with her: significantly, the “line” he uses is that she looks like an angel in Renaissance art. Once again, Fellini presents us with rays of hope yet includes a cautionary note, to keep us from being swept up in the mania of either sacred fervor or endless profane nightlife.
Fellini leaves us with a final image – reminiscent of the indelible final freeze frame of young Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) at land’s end in The 400 Blows (1959) – of Paola slowly turning to face the camera. She looks us each right in the eye. But what does her gaze mean? Does this rare right-in-our-face shot bode better than its counterpart, when Mrs. Steiner (so oblivious to her husband’s torment) greets us at the soirée, looking straight at us? Perhaps if we can fathom the meaning of Paola and that final shot we will have the answer to the film’s deepest mysteries – and paradoxes – about life. Or maybe the key can be found in Fellini’s mile-long, tongue-in-cheek yet heartfelt original title: Although Life is Brutal and Awful, You Can Always Find a Few Moments of Sensuality and Sweetness.
- Directed by Federico Fellini
- Screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli & Brunello Rondi
- Based on a story by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano & Tullio Pinelli
- Produced by Giuseppe Amato & Angelo Rizzoli
- Cinematography by Otello Martelli
- Edited bu Leo Catozzo
- Music by Nino Rota
- Music director Franco Ferrara
- Art direction by Piero Gherardi
- Costumes by Piero Gherardi
- Make-up by Otello Fava
- Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini
- Anita Ekberg as Sylvia
- Anouk Aimée as Maddalena
- Yvonne Furneaux as Emma
- Magali Nöel as Fanny
- Alain Cuny as Steiner
- Nadia Gray as Nadia
- Lex Barker as Robert
- Annibale Ninchi as Marcello’s Father
- Walter Santesso as Paparazzo
- Valeria Ciangottini as Paola
- Alan Dijon as Frankie Stout
- Renee Longarini as Signora Steiner
- Polidor as the Clown
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Koch Lorber Films‘ two-disc Collector’s Edition DVD, featuring a meticulous restoration of the film, is luminous, perhaps the finest-looking and -sounding Fellini DVD available. The image is both vibrant and completely natural, without a speck of dust or blemish of any kind. The three soundtracks – the original mono, stereo, as well as 5.1 – are also excellent, free from any distracting ‘noise’ and sounding as fresh as when they were recorded. This magnificient restoration was clearly a labor of love for everyone involved.
- Two-disc Collector’s Edition
- Widescreen anamorphic format
- Restored Mono Sound, with optional Stereo and 5.1 tracks
- Commentary by film critic and historian Richard Schickel
- Fellini TV: collection of never-before-seen Fellini shorts
- “Remembering the Sweet Life”: interviews with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg
- “Cinecitta: The House of Fellini”: musical montage of Fellini’s beloved studio
- “Fellini, Roma and Cinecitta”: interview with Fellini
- Eight-page collector’s booklet with rare and hard-to-find photos from the set photographer
- Introduction by Academy Award nominee Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways)
- Liner Notes by Dennis Bartok
- Restoration demo
- Photo Gallery
- $34.98 suggested retail
Reviewed October 1, 2004 / Revised October 26, 2021