When in Rome….. : La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini – 1960)

Upon receiving his Oscar for Best Foreign Film for The Great Beauty/La grande bellezza, Paolo Sorrentino thanked the usual suspects – the Academy, his producers, actors and family. He also paid homage to his “sources of inspiration” which included Diego Maradonna (as an Englishman this rather angered me), Martin Scorsese (naturally) and a fellow Italian director by the name of Federico Fellini.

Fellini was no stranger to the Oscars. Over the course of his illustrious career he received a total of twelve nominations – almost Merryl Streep territory – taking home the above honour three times. Simply put, Fellini has the same enduring effect on Italian cinema as Scorsese does in the USA thanks to New Hollywood and Jean-Luc Godard in France as a result of La Nouvelle Vague.

Sandwiched between La Strada (1954) and the autobiographical 8 1/2 (1963) – both of which won Oscars – is perhaps Fellini’s most well-known film: La Dolce Vita.

The film follows the personal and existential exploits of journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni – who would later feature in 8 1/2). A gossip columnist with a higher calling, Marcello is a wannabe socialite and a lost soul who wanders through the film searching for inspiration and meaning at a series of events and social gatherings of all the important people of Rome.

The film does have a rough structure in that it takes place over seven nights and seven early mornings, but for the duration Marcello flits here and there on a whim; from the flooded basement apartment of a prositute, to a gathering of film stars, the Trevi Fountain, a party of intellectuals, a cabaret bar, a chateau in the country – the list goes on. It is all highly spontaneous and exciting but in terms of a plot little progress is made from one scene to the next.

Marcello, who often remains as an observer at the periphery, ambles along with other characters who don’t seem to know or even care where they’re going, and consequently neither do we. They are stuck in a loop of night through to dawn and for almost three hours, in the darkness of the cinema, the audience is as well. Marcello is accused of having lost his ambition and we do question what it is he is striving for. What does he think of what he observes? Given that our point of view is closely aligned with him, what are we supposed to think?

Fragmented ideas and actions that bear no relation to one another topple like awkward dominoes as the characters struggle to find direction – it could be argued that they just don’t want to. The ‘sweet life’ of the film’s title appears to be one of reckless abandon, irresponsibility and a complete lack of compassion. The Rome of this film is a kind of Neverland (the Peter Pan kind, not the Michael Jackson kind) where grown-up journalists, photographers, movie stars, poets and intellectuals come to behave like children with wanton disregard for anyone but themselves. This is a film of acquaintances, not friends. What you do and who you know is considered to be more important than who you are as an individual. People say a lot, without saying anything.

la regle du jeu
A still from Jean Renoir’s masterpiece La Règle du Jeu (1939)

Initially, we’re happy to go along for the ride, be given a lift here or there, to another party, another night, but there comes a point where we want something genuine to occur. Something of substance. However, as you might expect, the only piece of action in the film that is of any seriousness or consequence is swept under the carpet with the same indifference as all the other trivialities of the plot. Perhaps it is precisely this that Fellini intends for us to take away from the film – had they/have we nowadays lost sight of what is truly important in life?

The vacuous and at times immoral lifestyle displayed is comparable to that of the revellers of The Great Gatsby or the hunting party in Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu. Religion (specifically Catholicism), and the lack thereof in the film, is one of the major talking points. Jesus has certainly left the building and the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg are not keeping watch.


The opening sequence is one of many visually impressive set pieces. Suspended by ropes from a helicopter, a statue of Jesus flies through the skies above Rome. It is observed from the ground by intrigued onlookers and by Marcello and gang, tracking it in a second chopper. Their interest is piqued/distracted by a group of women sunbathing in bikinis – although they are taking the statue to the Pope, asking for some telephone numbers is probably more important. I’m sure Ron Burgundy would agree. With this, JC’s brief cameo ends – what does he think of the city and people he observes from on high?

The paparazzi feature prominently, and despicably, in La Dolce Vita. The term, now commonplace, became a part of everday vernacular as a result of this film. Fellini, and co-writer Ennio Flaiano, named one of the many unscrupulous photographers Paparazzo and the rest, as they say, is history. One interpretation of the word refers to the irritating buzz of mosquitoes and this could not be more apt given the immoral vultures that swarm like flies around any and all scraps of supposedly newsworthy events.

I wonder if Lady Gaga has ever seen La Dolce Vita… She probably has.

One event deemed worthy of attention is the arrival in Rome of Swedish-American movie star, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg). Whilst nothing of what she has to say is of any substance she embodies the “star power”, receives the adulation and exerts the same influence that is reserved for A-List celebrities today. The air-headed responses she gives to inane media questions become gospel purely because of her stardom. Ring any bells, Hollywood? The next time you are lining up to pay for your groceries at the supermarket, will you buy a glossy magazine with an update on the Kardashians or a newspaper detailing the plight of the people of Ukraine?

Sylvia’s one telling contribution is that she features in one of the most famous images of film history – the Trevi fountain scene. She is beautiful, the fountain is beautiful, the scene is beautiful.

Don’t go chasing waterfalls, Sylvia.

Whilst La Dolce Vita won’t be going into a list of my all-time favourites, Fellini’s vision and talent as a filmmaker is undeniable and for any serious cinephile this film is a must-see (at least once). Film is of course entirely subjective and no two viewers will have the same opinion of what is considered to be a classic but I still think it needs to be ticked off the list.

In his review of La Dolce Vita the great Roger Ebert ends with comparisons of how his perception of the film changed at different stages of his life. Whatever age you may be, we should acknowledge that Fellini’s film was made nearly 55 years ago and the fact that it is still relevant and still being shown in independent cinemas in 2014 is testament to its place in cinema history.

*La Dolce Vita is this month’s classic film at The Bookshelf and will be shown on Thursday 20th March at 7pm.

(As always, none of the above images are my own)