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La Dolce Vita
''La Dolce Vita'' (Italian for "the sweet life" or "the good life"
[Kezich, 203]) is a 1960 film by the critically acclaimed director Federico Fellini. The film is a story of a passive journalist's week in Rome, and his search for both happiness and love that will never come. Generally cited as the film that marks the transition between Fellini's earlier neo-realist films and his later art films, it is widely considered one of the great achievements in world cinema.
Based on the most common interpretation of the storyline, the film can be divided into a prologue, seven major episodes interrupted by an intermezzo, and an epilogue. If the evenings of each episode were joined with the morning of the respective preceding episode together as a day, they would form seven consecutive days, which may not necessarily be the case.
''1st Day Sequence'':
A helicopter transports a statue of Christ over an ancient Roman aqueduct outside Rome while a second, Marcello's news helicopter, follows it into the city. The news helicopter is momentarily sidetracked by a group of bikini-clad women sunbathing on the rooftop of a high-rise apartment building. Hovering above, Marcello uses gestures to elicit phone numbers from them but fails in his attempt then shrugs and continues on following the statue into Saint Peter's Square.
''1st Night Sequence'': Marcello meets Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) by chance in an exclusive nightclub. A beautiful and wealthy heiress, Maddelena is tired of Rome and constantly in search of new sensations while Marcello finds Rome suits him as a jungle he can hide in. They make love in the bedroom of a prostitute to whom they had given a ride home in Maddalena’s white Cadillac.
''1st Dawn Sequence'': Marcello returns to his apartment at dawn to find that his fiancée, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), has overdosed. On the way to the hospital, he declares his ever-lasting love to her and again as she lies in a semi-conscious state in the emergency room. While waiting frantically for her recovery, however, he tries to make a phone call to Maddelena.
''2nd Day Sequence'': That day, he goes on assignment for the arrival of Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a famous Swedish-American actress, at Ciampino airport where she is met by a horde of news reporters.
During Sylvia's press conference, Marcello calls home to ensure Emma has taken her medication while reassuring her that he is not alone with Sylvia. After the film star confidently replies to the barrage of journalists' questions, Marcello casually recommends that Sylvia be taken on a tour of St Peter's.
Inside St Peter's dome, a news reporter complains that Sylvia is "an elevator" as none of them can match her energetic climb up the endless flights of stairs. Inspired, Marcello manoeuvres forward so as to be alone with her when both reach the balcony overlooking the Vatican.
''2nd Night Sequence'': That evening, an infatuated Marcello dances with Sylvia in the Baths of Caracalla. Sylvia's natural sensuality triggers raucous partying while Robert (Lex Barker), her bored fiancé, reads a newspaper. His humiliating remark to her causes Sylvia to leave the group, eagerly followed by Marcello and his paparazzi colleagues. Finding themselves alone, Marcello and Sylvia spend the rest of the evening in the alleys of Rome where they wade into the Trevi Fountain.
''2nd Dawn Sequence'': Like a magic spell that has suddenly been broken, dawn arrives at the very moment Sylvia playfully "anoints" Marcello's head with fountain water. They drive back to Sylvia's hotel to find an enraged Robert waiting for her in his car. Robert slaps Sylvia, ordering her to go to bed, and then assaults Marcello who takes it in stride.
''3rd Day Sequence'': Marcello meets Steiner (Alain Cuny), his distinguished intellectual friend, inside a church playing Bach on the organ.
''4th Day Sequence'': Late afternoon, Marcello, his photographer friend Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), and Emma drive to the outskirts of Rome to cover the story of the purported sighting of the Madonna by two children. Although the Catholic Church is officially skeptical, a huge crowd of devotees and reporters gathers at the site.
''3rd Night Sequence'': That night, the event is broadcast over Italian radio and television. Blindly following the two children from corner to corner in a downpour, the crowd tears a small tree apart for its branches and leaves said to have sheltered the Madonna. Meanwhile, Emma prays to the Virgin Mary to be given sole possession of Marcello's heart.
''3rd Dawn Sequence'': The gathering ends at dawn with the crowd mourning a sick child, a pilgrim brought by his mother to be healed, but trampled to death in the melee.
''4th Night Sequence'': One evening, Marcello and Emma attend a gathering at Steiner’s luxurious home where they are introduced to an absurd group of intellectuals who recite inane poetry, strum the guitar, offer shallow ideas, and listen to sounds of nature recorded on tape. While one of the women declares it better not to get married so that one does not need to choose, Marcello responds that it is better to be chosen than to choose. Emma appears enchanted with Steiner's home and children, telling Marcello that one day he will have a home like Steiner's.
Outside on the terrace, Marcello confesses to Steiner his admiration for all he stands for, but Steiner admits he is torn between the security that a materialistic life affords and his longing for a more spiritual albeit insecure way of life. Steiner philosophizes about the need for love in the world and fears what his children may grow up to face one day.
''5th Day Sequence'': Marcello spends the afternoon working on his novel at a seaside restaurant where he meets Paola (Valeria Ciangottini), a young waitress from Perugia playing Perez Prado's cha-cha ''Patricia'' on the jukebox and then humming its tune. He asks her if she is engaged then describes her as an angel in Umbrian paintings.
''5th Night Sequence'': Marcello meets his father (Annibale Ninchi) visiting Rome on the Via Veneto. With Paparazzo, they go to the Cha-Cha-Cha Club where Marcello introduces his father to Fanny (Magali Noël), a beautiful dancer, effectively offering him female companionship for the night. When Fanny invites Marcello’s father back to her flat, he suffers a mild heart attack.
''4th Dawn Sequence'': Despite Marcello's insistence that he stay and talk, his father hops a taxi to catch the first train home.
''6th Night Sequence'': Marcello, Nico (Nico), and other friends met on the Via Veneto are driven to a castle owned by aristocrats at Bassano di Sutri outside Rome. There, Maddalena seats Marcello in a vast room and then installs herself in another connected by an echo chamber. Professing her love and devotion to Marcello, Maddalena asks him to marry her while being kissed and fondled by another man. Unaware of her duplicity, Marcello offers confused replies that simply echo in a void.
When the group explores a suite of ruins annexed to the castle, Marcello is seduced by Jane, a man-eating American heiress (Audrey MacDonald).
''5th Dawn Sequence'': Burnt out and bleary-eyed, the group returns at dawn to the main section of the castle.
''7th Night Sequence'': Marcello has a violent argument with Emma in which both agree to end the relationship. With her consent, he leaves her at the side of the road and drives off. After a change of heart, he returns to find her contentedly picking flowers at the same spot he left her. They make up and return home together.
''6th Dawn Sequence'': While in bed with Emma, Marcello receives a phone call. He rushes to the Steiners' apartment and learns that Steiner has killed himself and his two children.
''6th Day Sequence'': After waiting with the police for Steiner’s wife to return home, he meets her outside to break the terrible news while paparazzi swarm around her snapping pictures.
''8th Night Sequence'': That evening, Marcello and a group of partygoers break into a Fregene beach house owned by Riccardo, a friend of Marcello's. To celebrate her recent divorce from Riccardo, Nadia performs a striptease to Perez Prado's cha-cha ''Patricia''. The drunken Marcello attempts to provoke the other partygoers into an orgy. Due to their inebriated states, however, the party descends into mayhem with Marcello throwing pillow feathers around the room as he rides a young woman crawling on her hands and knees.
''7th Dawn Sequence'': The party proceeds to the beach at dawn where they find a modern-day leviathan, a bloated stingray-like creature, caught in the fishermen's nets. In his stupor, Marcello comments on how its eyes stare even in death.
''7th Day Sequence'': Paola, the adolescent waitress from the seaside restaurant in Fregene, yells for Marcello's attention from across an estuary but the words they exchange are lost on the wind, drowned out by the crash of the waves. He signals his inability to understand what she is saying or interpret her enigmatic gestures. Giving up, he shrugs and turns to join the partygoers as they move away from the coastline. The film ends in a long close-up of Paola's sad yet smiling face.
*Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini
*Anita Ekberg as Sylvia
*Anouk Aimée as Maddalena
*Yvonne Furneaux as Emma
*Magali Noël as Fanny
*Alain Cuny as Steiner
*Annibale Ninchi as Marcello's father
*Walter Santesso as Paparazzo
*Valeria Ciangottini as Paola
*Riccardo Garrone as Riccardo
*Ida Galli as Debuttante of the Year
*Audrey McDonald as Jane
*Polidor as Clown
*Alain Dijon as Frankie Stout
*Enzo Cerusico as Newspaper photographer
Themes and motifs
Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is a journalist in Rome during the late 1950s who covers tabloid news of movie stars, religious visions and the self-indulgent aristocracy while searching for a more meaningful way of life. Depicting the ease, confusion, and frequency with which Marcello is distracted by women, the movie’s theme "is predominantly café society, the diverse and glittery world rebuilt upon the ruins and poverty"
of the Italian postwar period.
In the film's opening sequence, a plaster statue of Christ the Labourer suspended by cables from a helicopter, flies past the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct. The statue is being taken to the Pope at the Vatican. Journalist Marcello and a photographer named Paparazzo (Walter Santesso) follow in a second helicopter. The symbolism of Christ, arms outstretched as if blessing all of Rome as it flies overhead, is soon replaced by the profane lifestyle and neomodern architecture of the "new" Rome founded on the economic miracle of the late 1950s. (Much of this was actually filmed in Cinecittà or in EUR, the Mussolini-style area south of Rome.) The delivery of the statue is the first of many recurring scenes placing religious icons in the midst of characters demonstrating their "modern" morality influenced by the booming economy and the emerging mass-consumer lifestyle.
Perceived by the Catholic Church as a parody of Christ's second coming, the scene and the entire film were condemned by the Vatican newspaper ''L'Osservatore Romano'' in 1960. Subject to widespread censorship, the film was banned in Spain until 1975 after the death of Franco.
Umberto Tupini, the Minister of Culture of the Tambroni government censored it and other "shameful films".
Although critics have often commented on the extravagant costumes used throughout Fellini's films, few realized that the origin behind ''La Dolce Vita'' was the sack dress, introduced by the designer Balenciaga in 1957. In various interviews, Fellini claimed that the film's initial inspiration was in fact this particular style. Brunello Rondi, Fellini's co-screenwriter and long-time collaborator, confirmed this view explaining that "the fashion of women's sack dresses which possessed that sense of luxurious butterflying out around a body that might be physically beautiful but not morally so; these sack dresses struck Fellini because they rendered a woman very gorgeous who could, instead, be a skeleton of squalor and solitude inside."
Credit for the creation of Steiner (played by Alain Cuny), the intellectual who commits suicide after shooting his two children, goes to co-screenwriter, Tullio Pinelli. Having gone to school with Cesare Pavese, the Italian novelist, Pinelli had closely followed the writer's career and felt that his over-intellectualism had become emotionally sterile, leading to his suicide in Turin in 1950. This idea of a "burnt out existence" is carried over to Steiner in the party episode where the sounds of nature are not to be experienced first-hand by himself and his guests but in the virtual world of tape recordings.
Most (but not all) of the film was shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Set designer Piero Gherardi created over eighty locations, including the Via Veneto, the dome of Saint Peter's with the staircase leading up to it, and various nightclubs. However, other sequences were shot on location such as the party at the aristocrats' castle filmed in the real Bassano di Sutri palace north of Rome. (Some of the servants, waiters, and guests were played by real aristocrats.) Fellini combined constructed sets with location shots, depending on script requirements—a real location often "gave birth to the modified scene and, consequently, the newly constructed set." The film's famous last scenes where the monster fish is pulled out of the sea and Marcello waves goodbye to Paola (the teenage "Umbrian angel") were shot on location at Passo Oscuro, a small resort town situated on the Italian coast 30 kilometers north of Rome.
Fellini scrapped a major scene that would have involved the relationship of Marcello with an older writer living in a tower, to be played by 1930s Academy Award-winning actress Luise Rainer. After many difficult dealings with Rainer, Fellini abandoned the scene.
The famous scene in the Trevi Fountain was shot over a week in winter: in March according to the BBC, in late January according to Anita Ekberg. Fellini claimed that Ekberg stood in the cold water in her dress for hours without any trouble while Mastroianni had to wear a wetsuit beneath his clothes - to no avail. It was only after "he polished off a bottle of vodka" that Fellini could shoot the scene with a drunk Mastroianni.
Seven principal episodes
The most common interpretation of the film is a mosaic linked together by its protagonist, Marcello Rubini, a journalist. The seven principal episodes are as follows:
:1. Marcello's evening with the heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée)
:2. His long, frustrating night with the American actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) that ends in the Trevi fountain at dawn
:3. His relationship with the intellectual Steiner (Alain Cuny) which is divided into three sequences: a) the encounter, b) the party, and c) the tragedy
:4. The fake miracle
:5. His father's visit
:6. The aristocrat's party
:7. An "orgy" at the beach house
Interrupting these seven episodes is the restaurant sequence with the angelic Paola; they are framed by a prologue (Christ statue over Rome) and epilogue (the monster fish), giving the film its innovative and symmetrically symbolic structure.
The evocations are obvious: seven deadly sins, seven sacraments, seven virtues, seven days of creation.
Other critics claim that this widespread view of the film's structure is inaccurate. Peter Bondanella, for example, argues that "any critic of ''La Dolce Vita'' not mesmerized by the magic number seven will find it almost impossible to organize the numerous sequences on a strictly numerological basis."
An aesthetic of disparity
Critic Robert Richardson suggests that the originality of ''La Dolce Vita'' lies in a new form of film narrative that mines "an aesthetic of disparity." Abandoning traditional plot and conventional "character development," Fellini and co-screenwriters Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli, forged a cinematic narrative that rejected continuity, unnecessary explanations, and narrative logic in favour of seven non-linear encounters between Marcello, a kind of Dantesque Pilgrim, and an underworld of 120 different characters. These encounters build up a cumulative impression on the viewer that finds resolution in an "overpowering sense of the disparity between what life has been or could be, and what it actually is."
In a device used earlier in his films, Fellini orders the disparate succession of sequences as movements from evening to dawn. Also employed as an ordering device is the image of a downward spiral that Marcello sets in motion when descending the first of several staircases (including ladders) that open and close each major episode. The upshot is that the film's aesthetic form, rather than its content, embodies the overall theme of Rome as a moral wasteland.
Writing for ''L'Espresso'', Italian novelist Alberto Moravia highlighted the film's variations in tone: "Highly expressive throughout, Fellini seems to change the tone according to the subject matter of each episode, ranging from expressionist caricature to pure neo-realism. In general, the tendency to caricature is greater the more severe the film's moral judgement although this is never totally contemptuous, there being always a touch of complacence and participation, as in the final orgy scene or the episode at the aristocrats' castle outside Rome, the latter being particularly effective for its descriptive acuteness and narrative rhythm."
In ''Filmcritica XI'', Italian poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini argued that "''La Dolce Vita'' was too important to be discussed as one would normally discuss a film. Though not as great as Chaplin, Eisenstein or Mizoguchi, Fellini is unquestionably an author rather than a director. The film is therefore his and his alone... The camera moves and fixes the image in such a way as to create a sort of diaphragm around each object, thus making the object’s relationship to the world appear as irrational and magical. As each new episode begins, the camera is already in motion using complicated movements. Frequently, however, these sinuous movements are brutally punctuated by a very simple documentary shot, like a quotation written in everyday language".
In France, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, film critic and co-founder of Les Cahiers du Cinema, felt that "what ''La Dolce Vita'' lacks is the structure of a masterpiece. In fact, the film has no proper structure: it is a succession of cinematic moments, some more convincing than others… In the face of criticism, ''La Dolce Vita'' disintegrates, leaving behind little more than a sequence of events with no common denominator linking them into a meaningful whole".
The ''New York Times'' film critic Bosley Crowther praised Fellini’s “brilliantly graphic estimation of a whole swath of society in sad decay and, eventually, a withering commentary on the tragedy of the over-civilized… Fellini is nothing if not fertile, fierce and urbane in calculating the social scene around him and packing it onto the screen. He has an uncanny eye for finding the offbeat and grotesque incident, the gross and bizarre occurrence that exposes a glaring irony. He has, too, a splendid sense of balance and a deliciously sardonic wit that not only guided his cameras but also affected the writing of the script. In sum, it is an awesome picture, licentious in content but moral and vastly sophisticated in its attitude and what it says".
To this day, ''La Dolce Vita'' remains a classic and one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time. Film critic Roger Ebert considers it Fellini’s best film and lists it in his Top 10.
Awards and recognition
''La dolce vita'' was hailed as "one of the most widely seen and acclaimed European movies of the 1960s" by ''The New York Times''. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design: Black-and-White. ''La Dolce Vita'' also earned the ''Palme d'Or'' (Golden Palm) at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.
It was voted the 6th Greatest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
In 2010, the film was ranked #11 in ''Empire'' magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema".
In popular culture
The character of Paparazzo, the news photographer (played by Walter Santesso) who works with Marcello, is the origin of the word ''paparazzi'' used in many languages to describe intrusive photographers. As to the origin of the character's name itself, Fellini scholar Peter Bondanella argues that although "it is indeed an Italian family name, the word is probably a corruption of the word ''papataceo'', a large and bothersome mosquito. Ennio Flaiano, the film's co-screenwriter and creator of Paparazzo, reports that he took the name from a character in a novel by George Gissing." Gissing's character, Signor Paparazzo, is found in his travel book, ''By the Ionian Sea'' (1901).
The film has influenced or else been referenced in contemporary films, television shows, and songs. In Sofia Coppola's ''Lost in Translation'' (2003), Kelly's interview for ''LIT'' resembles Sylvia's interview scenes in ''La Dolce Vita''. Charlotte and Bob later meet in the middle of the night and watch the famous Trevi Fountain sequence while drinking sake.
Coppola said, "I saw that movie on TV when I was in Japan. It's not plot-driven, it's about them wandering around. And there was something with the Japanese subtitles and them speaking Italian - it had a truly enchanting quality". Steve Martin's ''L.A. Story'' (1991) opens with a hotdog stand dangling under a helicopter passing by a roof-top pool with the sunbathing women waving as it passes, an obvious reference to the opening scene of a statue of Christ being carried into the Vatican in ''La Dolce Vita''. In ''Goodbye Lenin'' (2003), directed by Wolfgang Becker, a statue of Lenin is flown across Berlin, recalling the opening scene of Fellini's film. The title of Korean film, ''A Bittersweet Life'' (2005), is a pun on the English translation of ''La Dolce Vita'' ("The Sweet Life") and the restaurant that the protagonist enforces for the mob is called ''La Dolce Vita''. The two protagonists of Marcos Carnevale's ''Elsa y Fred'' (2005) recreate the scene in the Fontana di Trevi performed originally by Ekberg and Mastroianni while in Simon Pegg's ''How to Lose Friends & Alienate People'' (2008), Alison (Kirsten Dunst) cites ''La Dolce Vita'' as her favourite movie. Fellini's film is later shown playing on a large, outdoor cinema screen. In the Daria episode, "Fire", Daria is quoted saying "watching a dead fish wash up on shore always puts ''me'' in a good mood" in reference to recommending the film earlier in the episode. Woody Allen's ''Celebrity'' (1998) is a New York-set re-working of ''La Dolce Vita'' that remains faithful to the original structure and characters with Kenneth Branagh taking up Mastroianni's role, and Goldie Hawn and Charlize Theron taking on the roles held by Anouk Aimée and Anita Ekberg, respectively. Allen also shot the movie in black and white in homage to Fellini's film.
Comediennes Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders drew from ''La Dolce Vita'' (among other Fellini films) for an episode of their eponymous television comedy, ''French & Saunders''. Entitled "Franco E Sandro" (a faux-Italian title for the show), the episode parodied the surreal motifs in Fellini's films, including replacing the flight of the Christ statue with a statue of Madonna. In the episode "Marco Polo" of the TV series ''The Sopranos'', Junior Soprano falls asleep watching ''La Dolce Vita''. When Bobby Baccalieri enters the room, Junior wakes up and comments on the statue of Christ hanging from the helicopter saying, "You can tell it's fake." Homer Simpson dresses for his date with Marge in "Some Enchanted Evening" while humming the theme from ''La Dolce Vita''.
Steiner's pessimistic speech about the future is quoted in an English translation in the song "The Certainty of Chance" by The Divine Comedy from their 1998 album ''Fin de Siècle''. It is the speech that begins, "Sometimes at night the darkness and silence frightens me. Peace frightens me. I feel it's only a facade, hiding the face of hell." Fashion model and singer Christa Päffgen, who adopted the pseudonym of Nico and later performed with The Velvet Underground before pursuing a solo career, plays herself in the "party of the nobles" scene. Adriano Celentano, who later became famous in Italy as a singer and actor, appears in the scene in the pseudo-ancient Roman nightclub, where Marcello makes his first advances to Sylvia. Bob Dylan's "Motorpsycho Nitemare" from ''Another Side of Bob Dylan'' (1964) references the title of the film as does Blondie's "Pretty Baby" from ''Parallel Lines'' (1978).
Tributes to Fellini in the "Director's Cut" of ''Cinema Paradiso'' (1988) include a helicopter suspending a statue of Christ over the city and scenes in which the Trevi Fountain is used as a backdrop while Toto, the main character, grows up to be a famous film director.