Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noel, Alain Cuny, Lex Barker
Written by: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, and (uncredited) Pier Paolo Pasolini
Directed by: Federico Fellini
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 180
Date: 02/02/1960

La Dolce Vita (1960)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hop on Paparazzi

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The arc of Federico Fellini's career reveals more personal information than that of nearly any other filmmaker, living or dead. Most filmmakers go through a period of struggle, either at the beginning or at the end of their career, but Fellini maintained a large degree of respect from his financiers, and enjoyed a certain amount of freedom throughout. As a result he experienced the most spectacular rise and decline of any great artist.

In the beginning, he was lumped in with the Italian neo-realists, even though his work always had a theatrical flair to it, particularly due to the extraordinary presence of his wife, Guillietta Masina. But through the years, Fellini's films became larger, more opulent and more elaborate. At the same time, they became more self-absorbed, turning inward and exploring Fellini's innermost fears and desires, rather than any outward observances of the world and the way things were. Nights of Cabiria (1957) saw the final dregs of any potential neo-realism floating away. And 8 1/2 (1963) was the pinnacle of Fellini's whole career, a giant, ultra-personal, interior story of a film director struggling with his inner demons. From there the films became garish and pretentious (Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon) and never recovered. (Though some of his final works have an appealing, relaxed quality.)

La Dolce Vita (1960) came right in the middle of these. It's a three-hour spectacle about a shallow tabloid reporter (Marcello Mastroianni) and his endless nightlife in and around Rome. It's not quite the obsessed spectacle that 8 1/2 is. But, in its own way, it's just perfect. Mastroianni plays Marcello, a kind of tabloid reporter who knows every nightowl and club crawler in Rome. The film supposedly takes place over seven disconnected nights that could be consecutive or could take place over the course of months. On the first night, Marcello picks up a society beauty (Anouk Aimee) and takes her to the flooded basement apartment of a prostitute to make love to her.

The most famous sequence has Marcello covering the arrival of a major movie star, the voluptuous and impossibly sexy Anita Ekberg. After a day of interviews, photographs, dining and dancing, Marcello ends up alone with the star. She behaves like a small child and he becomes enraptured by her. The evening comes to a climax in the famous Trevi Fountain scene, in which they wade into the water together. He has begun to idealize her as the ultimate woman, though he never really reaches her; he never even gets a kiss.

In another memorable sequence, two children claim to have seen the Madonna in a tree. The rural scene becomes crowded with reporters and the faithful, hoping for a glimpse or a bit of redemption. The children eventually begin to play the crowd, "seeing" the Madonna all over the place and making the congregation run around after them. These and other sequences have in common a sort of meaninglessness. The night begins with promise and ends with nothing. The dawn always breaks at the end of a sequence, and the daylight has a way of making everything look, not fresh and new, but decayed and ruined.

Apparently, Marcello has been working on a novel, something that would return his soul to him, but he remains a tabloid reporter. And to make matters worse, toward the end he has given even that up to become a publicist. Indeed, Marcello never recovers his soul. The film famously begins with an astonishing shot of a helicopter carrying a statue of Jesus over Rome. Marcello and his two companions try to pick up a group of bathing beauties, but no one can hear anyone else over the noise of the helicopter.

Fellini juxtaposes this opening with a great closing sequence. After a raucous party has turned nasty, the revelers pour out onto the beach at dawn, where a group of fisherman has caught a huge ugly fish. At the same time, a beautiful innocent young girl whom Marcello has met early in the film catches his eye. She tries to mime to him from the distance where they've met and how she knows him, but Marcello either doesn't understand or refuses to understand. And if he did make contact with her, he may have corrupted her too. Fellini draws interesting comparisons between the Jesus statue and the sea monster, and the subsequent failures of communication.

I'm leaving out so much more, including Marcello's relationships with his suicidal fiancée and his strangely devoted relationship to his father, each of which only further underline Marcello's emptiness.

I will add that Otello Martelli's astonishing widescreen, black-and-white cinematography is among the greatest achievements in cinema, and Nino Rota's score (combined with a little Bach) is superb as well. Also, trivia hounds will note that the term "paparazzi" -- for rude, intrusive bands of celebrity and society photographers -- came from this film.

La Dolce Vita was restored and re-released in 2004, and then available on an exclusive DVD by Koch-Lorber. Now the Criterion Collection has once again come to the rescue with a truly essential 2014 Blu-ray release. The disc claims to offer an even newer, 4K restoration, with the monaural soundtrack uncompressed. As for extras, there are three new interviews: Lina Wertmüller, an assistant director on the film; scholar David Forgacs about the period in Italian history when the film was made; and Italian journalist Antonello Sarno. We also get two older interviews with director Fellini and star Mastroianni (both in high-def). There's a presentation of Fellini ephemera (lobby cards, etc.), and a new video essay by a filmmaker called : : kogonada. Critic Gary Giddins provides the liner notes essay. As famous as this movie is, it still can't be overrated.

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