La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)

by Smart

Set in Rome during the 1950s, La Dolce Vita follows the life of journalist Marcello Rubini over the course of seven days and seven nights. Despite being what most would consider an ‘art film’, it still did extremely well at the box office upon release, and carried a hefty production budget. It was a turning point in Fellini’s career; he was leaving behind his earlier neorealist style, which can be seen in films such as Nights of Cabiria and La Strada, and beginning to orchestrate more surreal, dream-influenced works, which catered to his own carnivalesque view of the world. La Dolce Vita‘s popularity and success earned him the title of ‘il maestro’ in Italy, and solidified his place in cinematic history.

La Dolce Vita examines multiple sects of Italian culture, asserting the film as a symbol of its times. The title translates into English as ‘the sweet life’, a satirical comment on Fellini’s part as he portrays, through Marcello, how this so called ‘sweet life’ can so easily be destructive and empty. In turn, the film offers a wealth of social criticisms. It looks at the decaying state of society in Italy and the moral corruption of the bourgeoisie, which we find illustrated through their parties and lifestyles. Peter Bondanella refers to La Dolce Vita as a “dizzying ride through the present seen through the eyes of a director who examines a world without grace – a decadent, even corrupt world without God.” At times, La Dolce Vita captures the frantic obsession of the Italian people with the media, and the film even has the honour of having birthed the term ‘paparazzi’, which was derived from the name of Marcello’s assistant and photographer, Paparazzo.

Throughout La Dolce Vita we see Marcello’s attempts to turn his life around and his desire to make something more of himself. Unfortunately, he is trapped inside a lifestyle of empty encounters and unfulfilled spiritual endeavours. Both the opening and closing scenes present a theme of failure in communication. In the beginning, Marcello cannot speak or hear over the sounds of helicopter blades. Then, in the famous final scene, he is distanced from the young girl by a stream and is too far away to hear what she is saying. However, these two scenes are intrinsically different in meaning. In the former Marcello is simply trying to get the phone numbers of the pretty girls. This is a sacrilegious aspect of his personality and defines him for us as a playboy with loose morals. The latter scene is in contrast to this, as the young girl represents many of the ideals Marcello wished to attain for himself, but never achieved. She is an angelic figure who is encouraging him to pursue his dream of becoming a real writer and a man of integrity. Marcello turns away from her as he is unable to understand her message, thereby choosing to stick with his life of depravity and sin and acknowledge that he is incapable of rising above it to go after his true potential. He is unable to make the necessary changes to purify himself, and instead takes the easy way out and shrugs it all aside.

Fellini’s direction in La Dolce Vita is nothing short of fantastic. There is an immaculate sense of style and intimacy in his long camera movements and divine use of music. He brings the screen alive and makes it move with his characters. Because of Fellini’s love for his country, despite its decaying social state, he still portrays Rome, at least visually, as a beautiful and blossoming place. There is something indescribable, something magical hiding inside Fellini’s mise-en-scène. He does not slow down to capture dialogue, nor does he speed up to accommodate action, he simply lets it all flow together in perfect harmony. One scene in particular which for me epitomizes Fellini’s style and showcases a lot of what I look in cinema is the night time visit to the Trevi Fountain. As Marcello lusts after the beautiful Anita Ekberg and finds himself waist deep in water, an occurrence both mysterious and devastating happens: the water ceases to flow. In a single moment of a single shot Fellini is able to depict the heart of the message of his film. It is so simple and articulate, expressive and heartbreaking. Realization comes just as hard and fast for Marcello as it does for us; the ‘sweet life’ is hollow, empty and an ultimately unrewarding lifelong pursuit. Moments like this one are what make La Dolce Vita not only my favourite film of 1960, but also my favourite film of all time, from my favourite director, Federico Fellini, the Italian master.