Federico Fellini, one of the cinema’s greatest artists, began his career as a cartoonist, and then enrolled in the University of Rome Law School in 1938 in order to avoid being drafted into Mussolini’s fascist army. However, Fellini never actually took any classes, and instead spent his time as a court reporter, where he met the actor Aldo Fabrizi, who hired Fellini at a nominal salary as an assistant. By the early 1940s, Fellini was writing scripts for Italian radio programs, and developed an interest in film as a result of his work in the relatively new medium.
After the fall of Mussolini, Fellini and some friends opened up a storefront business that he christened “The Funny Face Shop”, where, functioning as a sidewalk sketch artist, he drew caricatures of American soldiers. A chance meeting with Roberto Rossellini developed into a friendship, and Rossellini asked Fellini to help with the script for the film that became Roma, città aperta (Open City, 1945). The success of the film encouraged Fellini to delve further into the cinema. He wrote several more scripts for Rossellini, including the scenario for the groundbreaking “Il Miracolo” (“The Miracle”, one of two segments in L’amore, 1948), in which Fellini also had a major role as an actor.
Fellini then served as an assistant director and/or scenarist for the young Italian directors Pietro Germi and Alberto Lattuada, both of whom had attended the Italian national film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. In 1950, Fellini made his first film as a director, Luci del varietà (Variety Lights, co-directed with Lattuada), but this modest comedy, about a vaudeville troupe, failed at the box office. His second film, now as solo director, was Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik, 1952), a parody of the popular fumetti comic books then popular in Italy, which used captioned photos rather than drawings to tell their story.
This film, too, failed to meet with public favour, but Fellini finally clicked with his next effort, the semi-autobiographical film I vitelloni (1953), about a group of young loafers who hang about in a small Italian town waiting aimlessly for something to happen in their lives; the film would much later be remade by George Lucas as American Graffiti (1973), set in a small California town. La strada (The Road, 1954) was an even bigger success, starring Fellini’s immensely talented wife Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina, a sort of “holy fool” who tours the Italian countryside as an assistant to the strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn). Alternately heartbreaking and comic, this deeply perceptive film about the vagabond carnival life struck a chord with audiences worldwide, and won an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.
Fellini’s career was now in high gear, and for the rest of the 1950s, he created a series of unforgettable films, including Il bidone (The Swindle, 1955), starring American actor Broderick Crawford as Augusto, a fast-talking con man who is not above donning a priest’s collar to cheat his poverty-stricken victims, and Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957), starring Masina as an eternally optimistic prostitute who perseveres in her faith in mankind, no matter how shabbily the fates, and her various clients, may treat her. The film won Fellini another Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
But all of this was merely the prelude to Fellini’s most ambitious project, in which he hoped to paint a broad canvas of the collapse of modern society and the rise of celebrity culture, La dolce vita (literally “The Sweet Life”, 1960), a biting condemnation of throwaway “pop” culture and the cult of celebrityhood, which also coined the term paparazzi for tabloid photographers. Marcello Mastroianni, in the role that made him an international celebrity, plays Marcello Rubini, a scandal reporter for a sleazy Rome newspaper. The film came about partially as a result of Fellini’s new celebrity status; forsaking his usual haunts, the director spent much time in the cafés of the Via Veneto, a gathering place for the rich and famous of the era. Working throughout 1958 with the screenwriters Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Faliano, and Brunello Rondi, Fellini used sections of an earlier, abandoned screenplay, “Molado in città”, but now expanded his new screenplay to encompass all of Italian pop society (1).
Famously, the film’s initial producer, Dino De Laurentiis was unhappy with the screenplay, finding it too gloomy and downbeat; he also wanted Fellini to pass over Mastroianni for the lead, and give the role to Paul Newman. This was not entirely out of line, for Fellini himself was set on casting Maurice Chevalier (!) as Marcello’s aging, ailing father; Henry Fonda as the intellectual Steiner, Marcello’s best friend; as well as Greer Garson, Luise Rainer, Peter Ustinov and Barbara Stanwyck in supporting roles (2). This would have resulted in a very different film indeed, but while he was willing to compromise on other matters, Fellini refused to budge on Mastroianni, and after strenuous negotiations, De Laurentiis backed out of the project.
But sensing the commercial possibilities of the project, redolent of sin and scandal, three other producers soon stepped up to fill the void, which for a time complicated matters, as Fellini soon found himself involved with all three simultaneously. At length, he made a deal with Guiseppe Amato and Angelo Rizzoli, as the “Riama” company, signing the contract for the film on 28 October 1958. The fiery Amato caused numerous scenes during the shooting of the film, but in Rizzoli, Fellini at last found a producer who respected and admired both his work, and his shooting methods. “Rizzoli is the ideal producer”, Fellini later remarked; “without him, I could never have made La dolce vita” (3).
Shooting began on 16 March 1959, with Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg (as Sylvia, the American sex siren), starting with the scene in which Marcello chases Sylvia up the steps inside St Peter’s Dome; in fact a set which had been constructed to match the original location. Also on the set was Walter Santesso, a young documentary filmmaker and actor, in the role of Paparazzo, Marcello’s sidekick, a stop-at-nothing photographer who specialises in catching stars in compromising situations. Immediately after this, Fellini shot the sequences documenting Sylvia’s triumphal arrival at the Rome airport, and then the famous scene at the fountains of Trevi (4).
The scenes of the Via Veneto – reconstructed within the confines of the Cinecittà studios for the film – went smoothly, once Fellini realised that shooting on the actual location was impossible because of the notoriety the film itself was attracting, even during production; ironically, the daily power struggles to complete La dolce vita were now hot gossip items for the Rome dailies. Luise Rainer, for example, had been written into the sprawling script as “Dolores, an old and lonely nymphomaniac who becomes infatuated with Marcello”, but after reading the script, Rainer rejected her role as “sordid and hateful” (5).
Rainer then came to Rome to argue the case in person, and attempted to soften her role into a sort of beneficent muse who helps Marcello write the book he’s always wanted to complete, but has been unable to. There was also talk of a sex scene between the character of Dolores and Marcello that Rainer objected to, but there are varying accounts of this, and the real truth may never be known (6). At length, annoyed with Rainer’s interference, Fellini decided to jettison both Rainer and the character of Dolores entirely, and the resulting tumult was covered extensively in the press (7).
Yet shooting pressed on, and as the film gathered speed, La dolce vita seemed to explore every aspect of modern Italian society; the supposed glamour of stardom revealed as a mere scramble for publicity at any cost; the non stop party life that is shown as both empty and rotten; and the intellectual “haven” offered by Steiner (Alain Cuny) and his family that is seen as an inadequate refuge from the harsh realities of 20th century pop culture. Always on top of the latest trends, Fellini spotted a young “scenester”, Nico (billed as “Nico Otzak” in the film’s credits, but born Christa Päffgen), who would soon go on to star in Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1966), and put her in a small role as a blond, hedonistic pleasure seeker caught up in the “sweet life”.
Mixed in with all of this is the backdrop of the endless quest for sensational headlines, where anything and everything that can make “good copy” is grist for the mill. When Sylvia’s drunken husband, Robert (Tarzan actor Lex Barker), shows up and almost spoils Sylvia’s debut with the Rome press, and is later involved in a fight with Marcello, Paparazzo is there to take pictures, along with photographers from the competing tabloids, to splash across the front page. Later, two young girls, clearly coached by their fame-seeking relatives, claim to have been visited by the Virgin Mary; most of the press in attendance know that the entire episode is a fraud, but they play it up as news because they know their audience will be intrigued. When the “visitation” turns into a full-scale riot, in the middle of a torrential downpour, so much the better; it makes for more spectacular visuals.
Throughout the film, Marcello spends his nights searching for gossip and scandal, going to endless, meaningless parties, hanging out on the Via Veneto in Rome, and constantly looking for action. He fights endlessly with his gullible, clinging fiancée, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), who attempts suicide when Marcello neglects her. Seeking respite from Emma’s persistent demands for a typical, bourgeois life, Marcello drifts into a relationship with Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), a cynical member of the jet set who lives only for the pleasure of the moment. None of this brings Marcello any happiness, and his job is equally repellent; exploiting the misery and foibles of the celebrity set he runs with.
When Marcello’s ailing father (Annibale Ninchi) from the provinces unexpectedly shows up for a night on the town, Marcello desperately tries to reconnect with him, but to no avail; his father suffers a minor heart attack, and returns home, realising that no matter how much he might wish to, he can’t recapture his own, hedonistic youth. As the film progresses, Marcello sinks deeper into the decadence of Rome’s nightlife, although even his professional rivals tell him to quit writing for the “scandal sheets” and work on some project worthy of his undeniable talents. Marcello’s only true friend, Steiner, is an intellectual with a wife and two children who has nightly literary “salons” at his high-rise apartment, and also urges Marcello to quit wasting his life.
But when Steiner suddenly and inexplicably commits suicide, after killing his two infant children, Marcello feels that there is no way out. The life of throwaway pop celebrity is all he knows; it has consumed him, spat him out, left him bereft of hope and stripped of whatever talent he might once have possessed. The film’s final sequence finds Marcello, drunk and unshaven, hanging out with a worthless group of “party people” at a shabby, improvised orgy, intent on momentary pleasure and nothing more. Marcello has now given up writing even for the gossip magazines; he has been reduced to being a publicist for hire, who dispenses instant, fraudulent celebrity – for a price.
La dolce vita finished shooting on 27 August 1959, and when the first cut was completed – at 18,000 ft. in 35mm – the film was more than three-and-a-half hours long. Working with the film’s editor, Leo Cattozzo, with the sympathetic help of Angelo Rizzoli, and against the interference of Giuseppe Amato, who now wanted to cut the more controversial scenes for fear of causing offence (a bit late for that, it would seem), Fellini brought the film down to 17,000 ft., and then trimmed an additional 200 ft. more to bring the film to its final release time of 174 minutes; oddly enough, the US version was slightly longer, at a full 180 minutes, and contained some sequences deleted in the Italian version (8).
Superbly photographed in black-and-white CinemaScope (a European variation called Totalscope), that most ’60s of all cinematic formats, by the gifted Otello Martelli, and with a haunting music score by Fellini’s frequent collaborator Nino Rota, the film was finally presented to the public in February 1960, and immediately became a commercial and critical sensation. It was condemned outright by the Catholic Church, but this did nothing to stop the film’s success; indeed, it made it all the more scandalously successful. La dolce vita, of course, is deeply moral, opening with the famous shot of a huge statue of Christ being ferried by helicopter to the Vatican, with Marcello and Paparazzo along for the ride, suggesting that the hope of redemption exists, even if we seek to reject it in our search for ephemeral fame and pleasure. As Fellini said of the finished film: “I wanted to shoot with the camera a conflagration in the culminating moment of its splendor, just before its disintegration” (9).
Coming as it did at the end of the 1950s, La dolce vita is a film that sums up the excesses and follies of that decade, and also gestures toward the onrushing 1960s. With La dolce vita, Fellini ended his first great decade as a filmmaker. Perhaps significantly, Fellini’s next feature film, 8½ (Otto e mezzo, 1963), dealt with creative block, as film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) can’t get his new film off the ground because he’s run out of material from his own life with which to create it. The sets are all built, the actors hired, the costumes prepared, and the money in place, but Guido has no idea what to shoot. The film ends with the situation unresolved, but by looking more intensively into his past, it is implied that Guido will find hope for his future work. 8½ won Fellini his third Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and he was soon involved in a series of captivating, dreamlike projects that occupied his attention in the 1960s and 1970s.
- Hollis Alpert, Fellini: A Life, Paragon House, New York, 1988, pp. 118-21.
- Angelo Solmi, Fellini, trans. Elizabeth Greenwood, Merlin, London, 1967, p. 141.
- Solmi, pp. 141-2.
- Solmi, p. 143.
- Solmi, p. 144.
- Mick Brown, “Actress Luise Rainer on the Glamour and Grit of Hollywood’s Golden Era”, The Telegraph 22 October 2009: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/6398728/Actress-Luise-Rainer-on-the-glamour-and-grit-of-Hollywoods-golden-era.html.
- See Alpert, p. 135; Solmi, p. 144.
- Solmi, pp. 145-146.
- Fellini quoted Alpert, p. 141.
La dolce vita (1960 Italy/France 174 mins)
Prod Co: Riama Film/Pathé Consortium Cinéma/Gray-Film Prod: Giuseppe Amato, Angelo Rizzoli, Brunello Rondi Dir: Federico Fellini Scr: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli Phot: Otello Martelli Ed: Leo Cattozzo Prod Des: Piero Gherardi Mus: Nino Rota
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noël, Alain Cuny, Annibale Ninchi, Nico Otzak
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.