Chris Sullivan reviews the 1960 classic which has left its mark on our culture in many ways, beyond simply its famous title.
A savage indictment of, fame, modern life, tabloid journalism and mass consumerism, Federico Fellini’s immense three-hour epic La Dolce Vita is even more pertinent today that it was on its release 60 years ago in 1960.
Re-released in a magnificent 4G restoration, as part of a season at the BFI which celebrates the great auteur’s centenary, the film follows Marcello Rubinno (beautifully rendered by Marcello Mastroianni), a writer who has abandoned his every literary ambition and sold his soul to the devil to become a leading Roman gossip columnist.
He spends his nights running about the Eternal City, chasing and escorting celebrities from bar to party to shindig to home. Every evening, he begins his search for tittle tattle at the pavement cafes on the infamous Via Veneto where “just everyone hung out in the fifties and sixties darling”. Here, you would find globally famous movie stars such as Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Richard Burton and Marlon Brando, in town filming at the renowned Cinecitta Film Studios, letting rip amongst impecunious princes, pimps, posers, prostitutes, peacocks and padres. The pickings were rich.
As he dives about gathering the goss, Marcello is accompanied by his erstwhile intrusive smudger named, Paparazzo, who – having no shame – will shoot anything and anyone, anytime, any where and any place. Indeed, the first time we meet the snide he is ejected from a club having attempted to take a shot of a rather beautiful and famous lady on a clandestine date with an older man. If published this would ruin her marriage.
After the first club scene, Fellini plants Marcello and his stupidly rich, two-timing squeeze Maddellena (wonderfully realised by the stunningly elegant Anouk Amee) in Piazza del Poppolo where they encounter unglamorous world-worn street walkers and give one a lift to her flooded slum in an entirely defeated Roman suburb. Here, she graciously makes coffee for them all, only for the pair to slip off without a goodbye and have sex in her bedroom while she waits outside. An understated yet entirely evocative scene, it exhibits the lack of compassion that the wealthy quite naturally harbour in their sense of entitlement whereas the sex worker herself, although hugely down on her luck, has a heart of gold.
Undeniably, Fellini was one of the all-time great directors who worked on two of the 20th Century’s greatest milestones. Alongside being the director and co-scriptwriter of La Dolce Vita, he was also the assistant director and co-screenwriter on Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) – the first authentic Italian neo-realist movie that instantly influenced the world. Both were new kinds of cinema, with La Dolce Vita entirely pertinent for a country that had come through World War Two, thrown off the yoke of fascism and suffered horrible post-war penury to grasp a gauche and ostentatious prosperity that was chaperoned by a new brazen set of values, confronting the Old Catholic morality that had dominated the country for centuries.
The movie sets out its stall in this respect by opening with an incendiary scene of a big statue of Christ with his hands outspread suspended from a helicopter via ropes on its way to the Vatican. It passes over ancient ruins and then a rooftop garden containing a gaggle of attractive ladies in bikinis taking in the rays whilst imbibing cocktails. Christ looks, to all intents and purposes, as if he’s blessing the city en masse by using modern technology. What we are seeing, writ bold, is a lampoon of Christ’s much publicised second coming. Another helicopter follows with Marcello and Paparazzo who are chasing the Jesus prank for the tabloids.
Like Brexit, the country was split right down the middle that, rather like Brexit in the UK, one half comprised of enlightened, forward-thinking people and the other group reactionary and indoctrinated.
For his troubles, Fellini – who had already won two Best Foreign Language Film Oscars for La Strada and Nights of Cabiria in the 1950s and would capture two more for 8½ and Amarcord – was called the Anti-Christ, a foul Bolshevik, a heathen and a traitor who was spat at in the street and received death threats in the mail. Subsequently, the Vatican deemed his masterpiece to be evil and ungodly and censored it. La Dolce Vita was banned in Spain right up until the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
In its essence, the film delicately condemns the modern, godless society in which possessions and fame rule over charity and the new Gods to be worshipped are those who have the ability to be someone else on screen or have the money to spend on ridiculously expensive fashions that they wear at absurdly overpriced cafes and nightclubs. As such, it paints a vivid and not altogether flattering picture of this hedonistic, metrosexual world.
The work of set designer Piero Gherardi in the film changed the way the rest of the world looked at Italy. After La Dolce Vita, Italian cars, household appliances, clothing, bombshells and matinee idols ruled the roost. Its title was at first used ironically to label a superficial avaricious existence but, as the decades flew by, it slowly morphed into describing a rather nice lifestyle replete with Mediterranean sun, great food, chic clothing and physically attractive human beings. Fellini claimed he’d used the title without irony to mean “the sweetness of life”, rather than “the sweet life”.
The name of Marcello’s camera-toting sidekick, Paparazzo, has also come to be used to describe intrusive photographers.
What also exemplifies La Dolce Vita is the prescience of its condemnation of celebrity culture and tabloid hounding. Then, one didn’t have the myriad wire taps and secret CCTV orchestrated by the likes of the News of The World, but there was an omnipresent press that pursued, not only the rich and famous, but anyone newsworthy including those who – as this movie rightly illustrates – should really have been left alone in times of distress and pain.
La Dolce Vita makes for an immensely enjoyable three hours – I have seen it three times in the past six weeks and, each time, I’ve seen something new and even more devastatingly relevant. You’d be foolish not to see it on the big screen.
La Dolce Vita is out now.