A shimmering achievement that oozes class, sex appeal, and style but stings with the futility and moral vapidity that so often accompanies such lurid frills. Ultimately, the sweet life is just a mirage, dancing from one whimsical fancy to the next, but that doesn’t mean we ever stop searching for it.
Fellini’s dissection of Rome’s elite follows Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a writer turned gossip columnist who prowls the Via Veneto, filtering through socialites, actresses, and royalty, unsure if he’s in search of a story or simply a companion for the night, whilst invariably choosing the latter. Over a series of seven nights and days which both attracts and repels the audience to his exuberant, effervescent visage of the Italian high life, we’re treated to the arrival of Sylvia (Anita Eckberg), a movie star whose almost impossible beauty ensnares Marcello early on, a media circus centring on the apparent sighting of the Madonna, the reacquaintance with Steiner (Alain Cuny), his childhood friend, and a brief reunion with his routinely absent father (Annibale Ninchi), to highlight just a few of the episodic narratives that seamlessly weave in and out of Marcello’s turbulent existence.
Filmed at the intersection of Fellini's artistic career, it draws upon both his neorealist roots, where he became an important auteur in Europe through pictures such as I Vitelloni and La Strada, as well as representing the inception of his journey into the grandiose, extravagant features of 8 ½ and Amarcord.
This coalition of approaches makes La Dolce Vita his most tantalising work, signifying not only a personal shift but also pointing to broader movements within Italy's artistic communities.
This came about due to changing outlooks after the economic miracle of the late 1950s had begun to lead art away from the sparse, quasi-brutalist nature of the dominant neorealism towards more buoyant, dare I say uplifting pictures. Upon the film’s release, Italian cinema was catapulted in the spotlight, with critics universally praising the feature whilst the Vatican denounced it for its erosion of catholic morality, creating a carnivalesque response which would have enthralled Fellini and his most ardent followers.
Like all great ringmasters, he juggles with many themes. Appearance is central to the picture. We see it through the impeccably stylized protagonists, who’s effortlessly cool aristo-chic elegance casts shame onto a modern era where wealth is everything and class is but a footnote in a very long chapter. More significantly, however, appearance as a façade, a form of concealment, is what attracts Fellini’s gaze unreservedly. It’s the emptiness that haunts Steiner’s footsteps despite Marcello’s adulation of him. The misery that cloaks Sylvia’s ethereal splendour and seeming perfection. The barrenness of Marcello’s hedonism that amuses him only fleetingly, until the worthiness of his pursuits become painstakingly hollow. The picture, despite its seminal, joyous cinematography - which includes a handful of cinemas most enduring images - is more concerned with what we don’t see, than with what we do.
The auteur’s fixation on religion that both petrified and fascinated him is a continuous theme also. We witness the sacred and profane being juxtaposed often, most memorably through the opening sequence in which a statue of Christ is flown over the Eternal City, only for Marcello’s gaze to be diverted by women sunbathing on a nearby rooftop. Furthermore, the old gods and the new play a key role in the development of his religious motif. No longer does the church feel omnipotent in Fellini’s Rome, as the Via Veneto and all it represents reigns supreme. Movie stars and the gossip columns become the new icons, as a changing morality sweeps the city of its feet. La Dolce Vita has to be seen to be believed, but even then, one leaves in total bewilderment, awe-struck at the scope and grace of one of cinema’s great visions.
The picture is currently being released throughout September at the BFI Southbank as part of a retrospective on his work. Tickets can be found below.