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La Dolce vita (1960)

La Douceur de vivre, The Sweet Life

The Roman Scandals - Bound to shock with its truth!

Rating: 10/10

Running Time: 167 minutes

UK Certificate: 15


The picaresque antihero of ‘La Dolce Vita’, Fellini’s bittersweet portrait of the ‘good life’ in sixties Rome, is Marcello (Marcello Mastroiani), an intellectual who has given up serious writing to become a society journalist for a right-wing tabloid. His loving fiancée Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) wants to make a home with him and start a family, but Marcello cannot bring himself to settle down, distracted by the whorishly decadent Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) or the magnetically vapid American starlet Sylvia (Anita Ekberg). As his job takes him from one party to the next, Marcello bears witness to, and participates in, the disintegration of all that is sacred in Italian society. Young children fabricate sightings of the Madonna before a baying press mob and a conniving church, Marcello’s estranged and elderly father (Annibale Ninchi) tries to relive his wild years in a long, dark night on the town, the aristocratic nobility mix it with foreign models and allow their estates to fall into ruin (when they are not converting them into brothels), and a party celebrating a woman’s divorce rapidly turns into a drunken orgy under Marcello’s own self-loathing direction. Only Marcello’s old friend Steiner (Alain Cuny) – a devoted churchgoer, loving father, doting husband, and patron of the fine arts – provides him with any sort of anchor to the values of the past, but even Steiner recognises, with the most tragic of consequences, that there is no more place for such outdated mores in the fast-changing world around him.

Even if you are seeing ‘La Dolce Vita’ for the very first time, so great has been its influence, and so prescient its vision, that many of its images will seem eerily familiar. Its opening sequence, for example, in which a helicopter hauls a giant statue of Jesus past waving rooftop sunbathers, not only encapsulates the film’s main theme – the incongruous clash of tradition with modernity – but has also inspired similar scenes in films as varied as ‘L.A. Story’ (in which the rootless postmodernity of L.A. life is signalled by a helicopter hoisting a giant model hotdog) and Good Bye Lenin! (in which a helicopter lifting away a statue of Lenin figures the post-Wall westernisation of East Berlin). Fellini’s film may unfold in the Rome of the early 1960s, but his carnivalesque satire of a society obsessed with celebrity, scandal, salacious scoops and sideshow freaks still seems as relevant as ever today – even the paparazzi that have now become part of our daily life derive their very name from Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), the parasitic, boorish photographer with whom Marcello sometimes collaborates on his dumbed-down stories.

While in many ways ‘La Dolce Vita’ plays itself out as an updated epilogue to Gibbon’s ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, sanctimonious preaching is always kept at a distance thanks to the peculiarly ambivalent quality of Fellini’s moralism. For while the film may lament the passing of Italy’s cultural inheritance and church traditions, and its wilful loss of innocence (embodied by Marcello’s slide into cynicism), at the same time it seems to celebrate precisely what it deplores. Like Marcello, Fellini himself seems fascinated by the grotesque excesses of the modern world which his film portrays, and he mesmerises the viewer with the very sensationalism and extravagance that he shows to be so soul-destroyingly empty.

The result is a hybrid monster of a film – funny yet deadly serious, flippant yet deeply responsible, over-the-top yet impossibly subtle. In short, ‘La Dolce Vita’ is a classic of decadence and debauchery, showing a life so sweet it just might make you sick.

It's Got: The famous Trevi fountain scene; ghost-hunting in a ruined estate; Nico playing herself; a big bloated fish and christianity prostituted; decadence and debauchery galore - but also despair; and, amidst a flurry of banal questions at a Hollywood starlets press conference, a barely audible voice asking "Do you think Italian neo-Realism is alive or dead?".

It Needs: Nothing - this film is perfection itself.

DVD Extras Digitally remastered from restored print (2.35:1 widescreen); scene selection; an interview with star Anita Ekberg (18min), in which she reveals that while her character Sylvia was intended as a parody of Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth, aspects of Ekbergs own biography found their way into the rôle ("I love going barefoot"; the famous Trevi fountain scene reconstructs a similar modelling shoot she had done there earlier; and the cat, far from being in the script, was just picked up by Ekberg when it wandered onto the set). She also discusses her difficult relationship with Marcello Mastroiani and his hatred of cold water (the fountain scene was shot in winter), denies having ever had an affair with Fellini, and describes the scandal caused by the film (the Vatican tried to ban it, and Milanese viewers spat in Fellinis face). While having La Dolce Vita available at last on DVD, and especially in so excellent a print, is always welcome, it is a pity that this UK release from Nouveaux Pictures does not include the full audio commentary or many other extras which come with Koch Lorbers recent US 2-Disc Collectors Edition for International Media Films. DVD Extras Rating: 5/10


A timeless, bittersweet carnival of severed roots, disintegrating values, lost innocence and dumbing down. Unmissable!