Great Italian director Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) chronicles the fast-paced, seductive life of the Roman cosmopolitan world and all its excesses, capturing a moment in time when notions of glamor, empty entertainment and the promise of a quick thrill seemed poised to replace all humanizing values, and dignity was transmuted into the sensational. For Fellini, the film marks a turning point, a shift away from his neorealist roots as a writer for Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Paisa (1946), and his own earlier films like I Vitteloni (1953), La Strada (1954), and The Nights of Cabiria (1957). The director’s movies became more stylized, more poetic, finally giving way to the visual carnival of 8½ (1963), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and Amarcord (1973). His images are highly charged with contrasts, textures, and movements and filled with longing and regret, even despair, but there is always a sense of joy, of wonder, a pure expression of love for his characters, their stories, and cinema. La Dolce Vita is not a film, it’s an experience. Following Marcello, a young journalist on the make (played by Marcello Mastroiani in the first of a series of collaborations with Fellini) as he chases down stories and women, the movie is a loose series of episodes, nights and dawns, ascents and descents weaved together in the decadent rhythm of an endless, aimless search for the elusive sweet life of Rome’s upper class.
La Dolce Vita opens with an aerial view of the city, where a helicopter carries a statue of Christ, arms outstretched as if in blessing, a sweet, sad expression on its face. In breathtakingly beautiful shots, we see the chopper make its way past ancient Roman aqueducts and the ugly, postwar apartment buildings on the fringes of Rome, while people scurry below, as small and insignificant as ants. Humanity is awaiting salvation from above because its capacity for self-redemption has been lost. There is another helicopter carrying Marcello as he documents the event. The first time we see the hero, he is above the city and its inhabitants, the image of a more spiritual being. However, at the first distraction he dumps the story in an attempt to get the phone number of a sunbathing beauty on a roof. She can’t hear him over the whirr of the chopper, and he moves on. Finally, the camera lands on St. Peter’s square, in the center of the city, earthbound along with Marcello in an inexorable descent towards the material rather than the spiritual world.
Marcello is a handsome, weary man who seeks happiness but never seems to take the right steps to achieve it. He dreams of someday doing something good, but is trapped in a life of empty nights and lonely mornings. “Once I had ambitions, but maybe I’m losing everything,” he muses. He seems to lament the loss of a moral center and intellectual direction without ever trying to regain either. He is caught in a downward spiral of pleasure and excitement, drifting directionlessly through the decadence and despair of his environment. “Now I have a job I don’t like, but I’m thinking about tomorrow.” He has illusions of entering this world and emerging untouched, thinking he is in this dazzling decadent setting, but not of it. He knows everyone and every angle in the Via Veneto, and everyone seems to know him.
The first night brings us to an elitist club where Marcello is looking to get an interview, but quickly gets sidetracked when he meets the beautiful, bored, rich, promiscuous socialite Maddalena. In his car, she tells him that she would like to live in another city, “somewhere where I don’t know anyone.” Marcello likes Rome “very much”; to him “it’s a sort of moderate, tranquil jungle where one can hide well.” Maddalena says she’d like to hide, but can’t; she needs an island. He suggests that she buy one. According to Marcello, her problem is that she has too much money, and he doesn’t have enough. “Meanwhile here we are, the two of us.” And this meanwhile runs on indefinitely, because neither of them seems capable of changing their lives. In Fellini’s 8½, Guido asks his leading lady “Could you walk out on everything and start life all over again? Could you choose one single thing and stick faithfully with it? Could you make it the one thing that gives your life meaning?” The main character of La Dolce Vita should ask himself the same question, and would probably receive the same explanation: “He wants to possess and devour everything. He can’t pass up anything. He’s afraid he’ll miss something. He’s dying, drained of blood.”
Marcello and Maddalena, in search for a change in their nightly routine, pick up a prostitute and go back to her home, descending into her flooded basement apartment and claiming her bed for the night. The morning only comes to illuminate the emptiness of their lives, as Marcello returns home to find his girlfriend has overdosed on prescription pills. Here, Marcello has a potential moment of awakening, when the most extreme closeup in the film shows how he is instantly shocked into alertness. Perhaps he will start to value what he has and stop hurting the woman that loves him so much. The spell lasts for about a minute; at the hospital, he is already calling Maddalena. Marcello is unfaithful and uncaring, but he returns to Emma again and again, as if she is the secure base he doesn’t want to give up. She waits for him, cooking and making plans for the future, unable to accept that he will never be satisfied with her “aggressive, sticky, maternal love.” Marcello says she lives in a dream, outside of reality, but later in the movie she demonstrates exactly how clear-eyed and realistic she is, asking a higher power why he has changed so much and why he doesn’t love her anymore.
In another episode, Marcello goes to the airport to cover the arrival of movie star Sylvia. She, like the statue in the first scene, descends on Rome from above, to dozens of waiting paparazzi who run all over each other for that one picture. Throughout the day, Marcello follows her relentlessly through the streets of Rome and up the stairs of St. Peter’s Basilica. She is always ahead of him, just out of reach, looking down on him in low angle shots. She is an illusion, an idealization of that elusive something that Marcello can never seem to reach. That night he tells her what he thinks: “You’re everything, Sylvia. You’re the first woman of creation. You’re the mother, the sister, the lover, the friend… the angel, the devil, the home. That’s what you are, the home.” He idealizes her into all women, into the Woman, not a real person but a male fantasy of perfection. Like Guido’s muse in 8½, of whom he catches only fleeting glimpses, Sylvia is an amalgam of all the unrealistic attributes the main character projects on her. The movie star is a real woman, a fun and surprisingly energetic one, who howls with the hounds on the streets of the city and meows with the stray white kitten on her head, but Marcello will never see her as such; his idealization never moves beyond childish dependence. When Sylvia wades into the Trevi Fountain and Marcello wades in after her, he comes within an inch of touching her, but can’t quite bring himself to do it. He knows that the illusion would be broken, that she would become real the second he has her, and that’s not what he wants. It is here that we begin to notice Fellini moving away from realism. The streets of Rome are completely empty, a fantastic place seemingly made for the two characters and only for them. The spell is broken as soon as morning comes. In a second, it’s light outside, and Marcello is woken from his reverie.
The night ends in disillusionment. Marcello takes Sylvia back to her hotel, where her boyfriend slaps her around and gives him a good beating as well. After the first few nights, we begin to understand that they will all move along the same line, forming a pattern, its rhythm punctuated only by the regret of the early morning. This cycle is conveyed visually through the use of stairs: the descent to subterranean nightclubs, apartments, and hospital parking lots, and the climb to church domes and high rise apartments. Fellini structures the movie as a series of literal, moral, and intellectual ups and downs that inevitably end in disappointment. It is on the third day that Marcello, and the viewer, experience something different. Marcello is bored at a photo shoot, but the moment he sees a man entering a church, his eyes brighten. He runs after him, ascending to the choir loft. We find out the man is a friend. One shot in particular captures their dynamic: Marcello occupies the right half of the frame, with Steiner in the middle, and on the left side a cross in the background—Steiner, then, is seen as closer to spiritual clarity, and Marcello must go through him to achieve salvation. As he plays Bach on the organ, Steiner urges Marcello to have a bit more faith in himself and finish the book he’s been working on.
On the third night, Fellini once again chronicles a fruitless search. Marcello is called at an alleged sighting of the Madonna, another idealized woman that we hope can solve every problem. Hundreds of people, the faithful as well as the curious, film crews, journalists, and photographers make a spectacle out of it. Here the director creates a panoramic cinematic fresco teeming with nonstop activity and gives us long fluid takes, the relentless camera panning and tracking with and against the motion within the frame. “Miracles are born out of silence, not in this confusion,” a woman tells Emma, and it’s true. The children lead the crowd on a chase, just as Sylvia led Marcello the previous night. They see the Virgin here, and then there, and the faithful run from one end of the field to the other, never finding what they are looking for as the children’s grandfather collects tips. It starts raining, and the scene is almost tangible. Fellini produces a tactile quality in all his movies, and in this scene in particular you can almost feel the rain coats as water trickles down, or the fedoras through the way the light reflects off them. Marcello climbs up a ladder, where the man working the lights comments on his relationship with Emma, relating it to his own wife: “sometimes she makes me so upset, and at other times…” And it’s true. Marcello can love or use women, worship them or ignore them, idealize or vilify them, but he cannot control them. In 8½, Guido had the same problem. Even in his fantasies, like the wonderful, both funny and terrifying harem sequence, the women in his life still have a will of their own, starting a riot.
Once again, everything collapses into an exhausted dawn. The night ends in death, as one of the faithful is trampled. The paparazzi, always present, cross themselves reverentially and take one last picture. No one has any respect for anything anymore. Old values, old disciplines are discarded for the modern, the synthetic, the quick by a society that is past sophistication, too full of pleasure, glamor, and itself. A world apart from the meaningless existence of the middle class is Steiner’s apartment. When his wife opens the door, she looks directly at the camera, inviting us, as well as Marcello in. The way she’s shot makes it look like she’s floating rather than walking. Here Steiner presides over his perfect wife and two perfect children, intellectuals, poets, artists, and musicians, and the conversations are decidedly less empty. At the same time, he seems discontent, asking “what use is civilization to us?” and complaining about “an existence protected by organized society, where everything is calculated, everything is perfect.” His advice to Marcello is to “live outside of passions, beyond obsessions, outside of time, detached.” With Steiner as someone to look up to, we see a change in Marcello. Steiner compliments his writing, saying it’s “vivid, passionate, (…) qualities [he] insist[s] on hiding.” The next day, which marks the center of the film, he escapes his regular life and takes his typewriter to a country trattoria to write.
The young girl serving him is like no other woman he has ever known in Rome. Paola represents his past and his own lost youthful innocence, the kind of life he’s left behind. Marcello tells her she reminds him “of one of those little angels in the Churches of Umbria,” and it’s not difficult to see where he’s coming from. Dressed in white, she is the perfect symbol of purity, and once again Fellini underscores the texture of clothes by showing us how they absorb or reflect light and the way they move. Her dress is light and airy; Paola is not constrained, not yet, and we hope she will never be, a part of the society the main character inhabits. Although making a good start at writing his book, Marcello once again gives up at the first distraction and starts talking to the girl. That night he receives an unexpected visit from his father, and we find out Marcello, like Paola, is not from the city. For a young man from the country, Rome must have seemed like a place of enormous, almost furious energy, of vast dreams and possibilities, but Marcello has long lost the wide-eyed innocence he may have had when he arrived at the city.
As the father, Marcello, and his faithful Paparazzo make their way from nightclubs to showgirls’ homes, we understand where the main character gets his easy charm and his way with women from, but also his aimlessness. The old man has never been a caring father; a traveling salesman—like the director’s dad—he was absent most of Marcello’s childhood. Come morning, the father falls ill and leaves in a hurry. Marcello begs him to stay, to forge a connection perhaps, complaining “I never see you,” but he will not be persuaded. Left alone on an empty street in a long shot, Marcello’s isolation is almost palpable. The dawn also brings another form of disillusionment for the viewer. The old man might have been his son’s hero, but the first shot of him in the morning, the back of his head with his hair sticking out in all directions, exactly mirrors the first shot of the clown at the Cha-Cha-Cha. Marcello’s father is reduced to the status of an entertainer that degrades himself for others’ enjoyment, as sad, sorrowful melodies play in the background. Nina Rota’s brilliant score perfectly captures the picture’s mood of melancholy sensuality. The music is sometimes quasi-liturgical, sometimes jazz, sometimes rock, with “Jingle Bells” thrown in for good measure. In a film that is in constant motion, Fellini’s composer gives the characters the music for their processions and parades.
The hardest blow to Mastroiani’s character is when he finds out his other hero, Steiner, is a fraud. His unspeakable acts destroy any kind of faith in humanity that Marcello might have still had. Steiner was his only reference to reality and stability, and when he dies, Marcello’s hope dies. “I don’t know anything. Anything at all,” he tells the police. The scene in which he accompanies the detective to greet Steiner’s unknowing wife shows the paparazzi at their most savage. The nights get progressively more and more depraved, and by the second-to-last night, Fellini makes it clear that there is a lack of any kind of connection between these people—it doesn’t even matter if they speak the same language, as model Nico starts speaking German to Marcello.
At the Villa at Bassano di Sutri, the tour of the place and the people goes something like: “Little Eleonora, 80,000 hectares, two attempted suicides.” “Do you think we’re any better?” Maddalena croons. The aristocrats, old and young alike, seem bored and exhausted, weighed down by diamonds and decadence. Marcello makes one last attempt at decency, when he reaches out to Maddalena in “the Chamber of Serious Discourse.” “Tonight I feel like I love you a lot, like I need you,” he tells her, but again it’s not a real woman he is speaking to, but the disembodied, echoed voice of a fantasy. “It’s too late” for Maddalena, she insists: “I’m a whore.” She tells him what he wants to hear, that she loves him and would like to be his wife, but it means nothing as she is embracing another man. The ghost hunt the aristocrats go on at the old castle is just as fruitful as the search for the Madonna, or Marcello’s search for the perfect woman. The procession of the people with candles looks exactly like the procession at the “miracle field.” Inside the castle, the journalist looks for a light switch; he is still searching for the light, as it were, but has no results. “A shame to see everything’s crumbling here,” a guest says, and that goes for values and decency as well as the old castle.
The last party, by far the worst, evolves into an orgy. If, before, Marcello had had any chance of escaping this life, now he is beyond redemption. The main character has truly become one with his environment, and the coordinator of the other guests’ depraved behavior. “This party should never end,” he states as his outfit makes the change in him apparent: he is wearing a white suit and a black shirt, the literal negative of his previous evening attire. The luxurious beachside house sports railings on the stairs that look like bars, but when we see Marcello behind them, they take on a much deeper meaning. His brutal treatment of the girl he slaps and humiliates, covering her in feathers is a form of self-repudiation; he sees her as a reflection of what he himself has become. At the end of the party, all the guests take their bow and dance their way out into the harsh light of the morning. It is clear that the night before has been all performance. The party is over, and the saddest thing is Marcello doesn’t know it. Walking on the beach, one of the boys that had been dressed like a woman complains that “I looked so good last night with makeup, but now I feel sticky,” and that sums up their experience. At the start of the night, everything looks good and promising, even if it’s fake, but by the end it’s all rather disgusting. In one of the first scenes of the film someone wonders how the paparazzi can keep doing what they do: “Every night the same story, don’t they ever get bored?” By the end we can see the same question can be asked about the whole upper class of Rome.
La Dolce Vita functions, as all of the director’s movies, like a series of short stories, self-contained episodes that are brought together into the main story. The basic element of Fellini’s films has always been the sequence. In 8½, Guido’s writer questions him about his movie, saying it “lacks a fundamental idea or, say, a philosophical premise,” calling it “a series of senseless episodes,” but this open form has a purpose. It creates a sense of realism; the world of the film is a momentary frame around an ongoing reality. The objects and people existed before the camera focused on them, and will be there after the film is over. The characters are not reduced to a single line of cause and effect relationships, and the story doesn’t have a clear-cut resolution because life cannot be reduced to the running time of any movie.
The last shot of the movie, although not conclusive, brings La Dolce Vita full circle. The movie begins and ends with two failures of communication, and two Christ symbols: the statue, beautiful, but not real, and the monstrous dead manta ray, ugly, but real. This fish becomes a symbol for society’s ugliness, an image of brute physical matter devoid of spirituality, dragged up the shore in a meaningless ascent. “And it insists on looking,” a character observes. Marcello remains numb throughout the scene, even when Paola recognizes him and calls to him from across the beach. The camera moves from a long shot of her, visibly grounded, closer and closer, until only her face is visible; she is freed from the earth. The background goes out of focus, changing from images of specific objects to shades and forms of light, encircling her like a halo. She becomes a spiritual being. In contrast, Marcello is seen kneeling on the sand, closer to the ground than we have ever seen him before; he’s reached bottom. Unable to hear her cryptic message, he returns to his latest distraction, possibly still dreaming of attaining the elusive sweet life. The film starts and ends without music. In complete silence, the emptiness of these lives is even more poignant.
In 8½, a journalist asks Guido, Fellini’s stand-in, why he never filmed a love story. All of Fellini’s films are love stories. Even at their harshest, they are filled with joy as well as despair, with a profound melancholy, and untold feelings of tenderness and passion. La Dolce Vita is one of his best movies, and one of his most deeply felt. Half a century has only made its strengths more apparent. Even if we come to pity Marcello and the movie’s other characters, we can’t but love them as well.