La dolce vita (1960), or ‘the sweet life’, is often viewed as the sweet spot of transition for Italian auteur Federico Fellini. It represented the turning away from his earlier, more neorealism-tinged 1950s work (I vitelloni, La strada), heading towards the freewheeling fantasias of the next decade and beyond (8½, Amarcord).
The film documents the heady, chaotic social maelstrom of Rome’s Via Veneto, filtered through Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a gossip columnist with more literary ambitions. As Marcello flits from party to party, woman to woman, story to story, he’s constantly torn between the glamorous and the grotesque, cheap thrills and a more lasting cost to his soul.
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La dolce vita is a visual feast, with Fellini conjuring up a series of stunning images that are as seductive on the surface as they are profoundly disquieting on a deeper level.
A key strategy to reflect the duality of this sour/sweet lifestyle is through a series of doubles or parallels. Marcello ultimately cannot reconcile his 2 potential paths through life, and one of the many ironies of this beautiful film is how deftly its filmmaker finds balance where its protagonist falters.
And so from this carnival that dispassionately charts the transience of the material world, Fellini is able to conjure something eternally resonant.
Here – in 25 images – is how he does it.
1. One of the iconic opening shots in cinema, as a statue of Christ is flown above Rome by helicopter, attracting great interest but offering… what? Benediction? Damnation? Salvation?
2. The statue is a beautiful visual stunt, but our introduction to Marcello shows how it impedes more earthbound needs: the helicopter noise denies him the phone numbers of the sunbathing beauties below.
3. Marcello clearly has many women’s attention but 2 reoccur: his girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), who he sees as suffocating, yet whom he cannot leave, as here after her attempted overdose…
4. …and enigmatic socialite Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), alluring but only fleetingly available.
5. Marcello is not the only one caught between desires. Swedish movie star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) revels in the attention on her arrival in Rome…
6. … but Fellini also puts us in the perspective of how this ruthless focus can easily trap and overwhelm (and yes, Marcello’s wingman photographer Paparazzo gave rise to the term for a whole sordid media strand).
7. The film presents a never-ending series of staircase ascents and descents through Rome’s many levels. Here Marcello pursues his new fascination Sylvia to the top of St Peter’s Cathedral, but as with much here, lasting gratification is always just out of reach.
8. Perhaps the film’s defining, rapturous scene, as Sylvia bathes in the Trevi Fountain. Marcello joins her in their personal nocturnal playground…
9. … yet remains unable to reach out and touch his idealised fantasy. And when he suddenly turns…
10. … the spell is broken by the harsh reality of the day.
11. For a time, it seems that Marcello will find respite in his friend Steiner (Alain Cuny), an intellectual with a creative social circle and seemingly perfect family life. Fellini aligns Steiner here with a spiritual connection that Marcello might, but has not yet, attained.
12. From the sacred to the profane: an alleged child sighting of the Madonna – yet another idealised woman to provide salvation – becomes a staged media circus…
13. …though the heavens have other ideas about this epic production, literally raining on the parade. Still, as an example of cinematographer Otello Martelli’s gloriously tactile monochrome imagery, the mix of light, smoke and water is intoxicating.
14. Marcello is clearly our conduit into this world, but Fellini keeps us off-guard with his point-of-view shots. Here, Steiner’s wife welcomes Marcello to their soirée, directly addressing him (and the camera)…
15. … and as we enter, Steiner, too, rises to meet our/Marcello’s eyeline in greeting…
16. … before Steiner’s gaze shifts right and Marcello enters the frame from camera left. It’s a fascinating dichotomy that holds the audience both entwined and removed from the film’s protagonist.
17. Encouraged by Steiner, Marcello retreats to the country to restart his writing. His encounter with young waitress Paola (Valeria Ciangottini) seems to reconnect him to his own simpler life and youth outside of Rome’s frenetic circus. “You look like one of those little angels…”
18. An unexpected visit from Marcello’s father appears to offer another link to more innocent times. But once his dad hits the town, he too gets caught in Rome’s suspect charms. This shot from behind the clown at the Cha-Cha-Cha club’s cabaret…
19. … directly mirrors that of Marcello’s penitent father now worse for wear the following morning, another casualty of the Via Veneto’s fast-lane living.
20. The film’s climactic orgy may be tame by modern standards, but it’s not the explicitness that still resonates, more the disconnect and lack of empathy shown by those involved.
21. As for Marcello, beset by rejection and shattered illusions after the tragedy of Steiner’s family, he succumbs to the general malaise. His outfit is now the inverse, or negative, of the confident black suit/white shirt combo he previously wore; his party lifestyle now more cage than means of escape.
22. At the film’s end, rather than being beguiled by a Christ figure from above, the group are instead repulsed by a giant manta ray dredged from the sea: a bookend pair of untouchable beauty and a tangible reality that they, unwittingly, deem monstrous.
23. Another doubling up. Paola reappears across the beach, gesturing to Marcello and reminding him of his writing….
24. … but, as in the helicopter, he cannot – or at least professes not to – hear or understand her.
25. And with that, Marcello has no option but to pulled back to the party, consumed by the never-ending carousel of the sweet life.
Originally published: 24 September 2020