Rituparna Chatterjee revisits genius filmmaker Federico Fellini’s most famous, and perhaps most controversial film, La Dolce Vita
No serious film connoisseur can resist the seduction of La Dolce Vita (meaning, the sweet life). A scandalous box office hit in Italy and internationally as well as a huge critical success, La Dolce Vita remains one of the most influential films of all time, since its release in 1960. The film gave birth to the word paparazzi. Genius filmmaker (and my personal film god) Federico Fellini’s masterpiece is a caustic critique of modern Rome, but is pertinent to all modern society as well.
Marcello Mastroianni — arguably Fellini’s favourite lead man — stars as the frustrated tabloid journalist Marcello Rubini. His beat is the Roman glitterati. His photographer friend Paparazzo (Walter Santasso) and he are perpetually hunting for the next big scandal. Marcello is simultaneously seduced and repulsed by the glamorous, hedonistic and depraved lifestyle of the bored rich, for whom nothing is sacred, especially if it is amusing. Marcello wants to be a writer but is forced to stick on to what we call “yellow journalism” in order to earn his living. As he drifts through life, Marcello is smitten by the unattainable sexy American actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), drawn towards his jaded wealthy lover Maddalena (Anouk Aimee), and trapped in a suffocating relationship with his traditional live-in girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux). His relationships with his women, his ideal Steiner (Alain Cuny) and his estranged father (Annibale Ninchi) expose the sorry emptiness of “the sweet life”.
La Dolce Vita boasts of one of the most famous opening scenes in film history that has been imitated in contemporary films like Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin. A helicopter carrying a statue of Christ flies over a broken bridge, Rome’s ancient ruins, new flats, and a rooftop full of bikini-clad sunbathing women. It is followed by another helicopter bearing Marcello who grabs the opportunity to flirt with the women. The tone of the film is immediately set. Only Fellini could have come up with such a simple yet powerful motif for the debauched modern world. The scene depicts the crumbling state of all traditional consolations available to the world, be it religion, spirituality or Rome’s rich history. The decadent paparazzi is taking Christ to the Pope. Hence, the paparazzi becomes more important than Christ or the salvation he represents. Could there have been stronger religious cynicism?
Furthering the downfall of religious faith is the fake miracle. Two kids take a crowd of adults for a ride by pretending that they could see Virgin Mary. Worse, so-called witnesses of the miracle make poses of piety for the paparazzi! La Dolce Vita’s myriad religion-mocking images fumed the Catholic Church, the Roman nobility and right-wing Italian politicians; they wanted the film banned.
Another strong theme in the film is the European fear of Americanisation. Nino Rota depicts this dilemma through La Dolce Vita’s Grammy-nominated music score — a liturgical blend of American rock and roll, American pop songs and a bit of jazz. Then, despite being shattered and drunk, the American Tarzan (Lex Barker) thrashes the impotent Marcello. This is Fellini’s way of predicting that Europe would be dominated by the Coca Cola culture. Or for that matter, tradition by modernity.
Warm humour and spectacle run through La Dolce Vita like in all of Fellini’s work. Fellini’s films are simultaneously intellectual and entertaining. There is no sense of boring preachy brooding in Fellini’s work as in some of his contemporaries’ work say, Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). Fellini’s films follow no traditional structure and La Dolce Vita is no exception. Marcello does not follow the plot, the film follows him.
La Dolce Vita is often referred to as the division between Fellini’s neorealistic films (e.g. Variety Lights, I vitelloni, La Strada, etc.) and his later famous phantasmagoric films (e.g. Voice of the Moon, Fellini Satyricon, etc). Fellini uses his trademark phantasmagoria to depict La Dolce Vita’s neorealistic elements — Rome’s religious and economic condition, the plight of prostitutes, clowns, showgirls and other minor characters — and these fantastic scenes are extremely potent. The most powerful of these is the orgy-like dance sequence wherein the satanic Frankie (another American movie star) seduces Sylvia.
It is impossible to explain the brilliance of La Dolce Vita in such a short piece. Fellini himself needed three hours, and I would need three lives. So, let’s just cut to the film’s mesmerising last scene — a grotesque prehistoric fish (representing Christianity again) catches the attention of the amoral rich. Marcello’s only smirks. The pretty little adolescent (the only symbol of innocence in La Dolce Vita) tries to rescue Marcello from his doom but he cannot understand her. He is trapped but cannot escape from the clutches of “the sweet life”.