For a vertiginous moment of the disoriented post-war period, cinema and Federico Fellini put Rome at the center of the world; now his first 1960 masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, is being reissued as part of a retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. It’s a film with Fellini’s genius for revealing dreamlike, surreal imagery everywhere, especially that extraordinary image of Christ being airlifted over the city, seemingly about to be delivered to the Pope.
The film finds Rome in a hysterical, excitable but also somewhat desperate mood – the mood of “Il Boom”, that economic and cultural renaissance in which Italy was euphorically eager to forget the catastrophe of fascism and defeat. , and to start all over again, in a headlong rush of modernity and effervescence: cinema, music, fashion and style. It’s as if Rome’s new contemporary sex appeal and hedonism have revived the spirit of pre-Christian Rome and pagan rituals. But it coexists with a secret melancholy, a spiritual bust that goes with the boom: boredom and fear.
Marcello Mastroianni plays Marcello, a handsome and jaded gossip reporter who is a man of the city, a night owl, a womanizer whose affairs drive his usual girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furnaux) to despair. Above all, he is a used to from fashionable Via Veneto, where Hollywood and Italian movie stars are regularly surrounded by aggressive photographers; it was here that Marcello’s own colleague, Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), gave the world a new word. (When Marcello accurately addresses him as “Paparazzo!”, it now sounds unintentionally accusatory.) For the shooting of nighttime scenes, Fellini created a gigantic life-size replica of Via Veneto at Cinecittà studios. , and Shawn Levy’s book on Rome in this period, Dolce Vita Confidential, amusingly describes how Fellini came to prefer his own artificial Via Veneto – taller, straighter – to the real one.
Marcello despises himself for failing to write a novel, and he actually knows a serious and much-loved writer known simply as Steiner (played by Alain Cuny), this name possibly signaling a Mitteleuropaisch seriously at odds with the carefree world of Rome. It is Steiner who will be the touchstone of Marcello’s fragile idealism, his feeling that he could one day make something of himself; and it is Steiner’s horrible fate that will seal Marcello’s disillusionment: especially the way the paparazzi behave with his widow.
Is Marcello damned? There is a whiff of sulfur in his relationship with Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), whose name perhaps recalls Marie-Madeleine, especially when at the end of a long evening they leave with a sex worker in his miserable apartment to make love there, by the shivers of low life. (The woman hopes that Marcello could give her 2,000 lire in the morning; he does not.)
Fellini stages a stunning sequence when Marcello has to cover a spasm of religious hysteria as two children are said to have had a vision of the Blessed Virgin: an impromptu media circus assembles as the sick and disabled arrive in droves, hoping to be healed. And it’s disturbing and even moving when Marcello’s handsome and mischievous old father (Annibale Ninchi) arrives in Rome without warning and Marcello takes him to spend a night on the town; the older man charms the young local women, one of whom – much to Marcello’s dismay and dismay – takes him home to her apartment.
There is an excruciating and mortifying sequel as her father suffers some sort of medical crisis, brought on, we can only assume, by reckless effort or the prospect of effort. Marcello has to stop by this woman to get her a taxi – having already confessed to a friend that he doesn’t even know his father very well. He sees in him an image of his future and present self. (Paolo Sorrentino’s aging journalist, Jep, in his 2013 film The Great Beauty, played by Toni Servillo, is something of an amalgam between Marcello and his father.) There’s something so sad about that.
An extended streak in a 16th-century castle as the guest of a decadent, financially ruined aristocratic family is the prelude to a dark twilight of Marcello’s self-respect. It is a comparable gloomy mood that Antonioni finds in his film La Notte a year later. More parties lead to this strange confrontation on the beach with the fish, a sea monster that is a harbinger of disaster.
La Dolce Vita is widely known for Marcello gallantly arguing in the Trevi Fountain with visiting Hollywood diva Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a scene that might be just too absurd without the inspired ending that Fellini conjures up. Suddenly, like a hard cut, night turns to morning, like waking from a dream, and the couple are still fully clothed by the fountain, flashing in the light of day. Have they really been like this, all night, or is it all just a dream? And the press interview scene is bizarre, with Sylvia asking if she prefers pajamas or a nightgown, or if she thinks neorealism is dead.
Like the interview scenes in A bout de souffle by Godard that same year, it testifies to a fascination for the theater of celebrity. It’s a brilliant movie, but there’s nothing sweet about it.