La Dolce Vita – 1960 – dir. Federico Fellini

A master of baroque, neo-realist cinema, Federico Fellini took movies to a new level, turning standard, narrative storytelling on its head and replacing it with poetry. Few, if any, directors since even try to copycat his style, deferring to his one-of-a-kind status as a genius of camera-wielding and a maker of innovative art.  He was to the camera what Picasso was to the canvas and made us see Image as we had never seen it before.

La Dolce Vita (translated as “The Sweet Life” or “The Good Life”) stands as a perfect example of Fellini’s genius. One of the most acclaimed European films of the 1960s (indeed, it illustrates “The Swinging Sixties” perhaps better than any other film ever made of that era), it won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, winning for Best Costume Design. Entertainment Weekly named it the 6th greatest movie of all time and it shines now more than it did when it was made because our modern-day society with its attachment to shallow values, instant fame (Warhol’s 15 minutes of “Me”) and universal promiscuity mirrors Fellini’s world view and reveals the director, in addition to his many other gifts, to be a true prophet of the future.

From the very first scene, where a statue of Jesus hovers over the proceedings suspended from a helicopter on its way to The Vatican and is assaulted by the squeals of eager, bikini-clad nymphets bidding it “goodbye”, the film pits the sacred against the profane. The modern age (machinery) is taking the old ways of morals, ethics and Religion away, as if to say, “Get out of here! Now it’s OUR turn!!!” This wrestling match between faith and paganism, between old and new, keeps weaving its way in and out of the movie, as do the movements in a symphony.

The story it tells is of Marcello Rubini (played by Marcello Mastroianni), a tabloid reporter who, in order to dig up the best dirt on high society, has insinuated himself among its ranks, including a famous movie star (Anita Ekberg) and a wealthy lady friend (Anouk Aimee). Marcello’s descent into decadence becomes a jumping point for him (and Fellini) to explore the battle between the old world and the new, between love and lust. Repeatedly, we are treated to a juxtaposition of these two, opposing sensibilities, faith versus paganism, often within the same image, as when a costume or article of clothing will double as a symbol of both: note the scene in which a hedonistic reveller’s outfit can also be seen as a cleric’s own, the priest’s hat, the chasuble, can also double as a partygoer’s garb.  Watch too how much like a nun or priest Ekberg looks as she ascends the stairs of a church, sporting her Vatican hat, drawn to the bells of religion and ecstacy, only to have the winds of change send the biretta flying off her head, into oblivion.  Or how Mastronianni, indecisive as to whether he should give a white flower, that universal symbol of romance and chastity, to his lady love, twirls it in his hesitating hand, then opts to toss it aside, in favor of bedding her instead that very night.

The film is populated with jet setters and bon vivants whose fun becomes increasingly ugly.  For two hours, we (and Mastroianni) are living inside a jester’s head, guests at an endless party, fueled by an enthralling decadence (if decadence can ever be enthralling), a Vegas-esque excess.  Again and again, we see contrasts being drawn between what Holy Mother Church demands and what society and human desire must have.  Fellini’s gallery of grotesques, here not as startling as in other of his films, nevertheless causes us to sit up and take notice.  See the exaggerated glamour, fake and forced, of Anita Ekberg’s descent from a plane into a frenzy of hungry photographers and fans. They are vultures and she is their daily bread. They MUST have her. And while it is understandable that they trip and fall all over each other in their attempt to capture her image, the puzzle remains — of what substance and value, if any, is she?

These people are, indeed, as we (and Mastroianni) will come to see, sick, sexually saturated, booze-soaked monsters and fools, wild for wigs and wine and fine jewelry. The barrel of their appetites is bottomless.  Slowly, Mastroianni begins to realize how the most fun you have ever had can quickly turn into the hell that has no exit. Or does it? This is the great question Fellini poses, and he cooks it up in blacks and whites so delicious, you could lick the richness of them off your fingers, bury your hungers deep inside them.

Of special note is the nightclub scene where salacious satyrs of ancient mythology thumb their noses at Holy Mother Church, in a return to pagan, and ultimately soulless, ways.  The dilemma presented is whether to stick with old-fashioned ethics and morals or head for hedonistic waters. Are these togas the actors are wearing?  Or chasubles for High Mass?  Faith or atheism?  What to do? Which road to take?  Blink and you see a sinner. Blink and you see a saint, sometimes contained within the same character or frame.  These symbols of the conflicted 60s have never been more cogently posed and dissected.

Helming it all is the unbearably handsome international superstar, Mastroianni,  the luscious banana split that is Anita Ekberg and the exotic-eyed beauty, Anouk Aimee, all perfectly cast and Surround-Sounded by the magnificent Nino Rota score.  And it contains one of the most famous scenes in movie history: of Ekberg splashing away in the Trevi Fountain, the water cascading over and around her in playful waves. As Ekberg once told it, the scene happened quite by accident after she cut her heel walking on the sizzling August sidewalk and waded into the pool to cool off the wound and her hot, tired feet. The cameraman noticed and kept the camera rolling. Bellissima!!

The movie is nothing short of marvelous. Fellini has created here a tiered pyramid, each new layer building upon the one before, stanzas of landscape and characterization that bid us to climb to the top only so we can, in the end, like Beelzebub himself, fall.

In the 21st century, the film has become that most valued of artifacts — an historical document of the way we were, and still are.  At one interview early on in the film, Anita Ekberg purrs to the paparazzi, “I like three things the most: Love, Love and Love.”   We Love Love Love Fellini. And we love La Dolce Vita.

Leo Racicot Written by: