La dolce vita (Fellini, 1960)


One of the most famous Italian movies, La dolce vita by Federico Fellini has been highly acclaimed since its original release, for countless reasons. Among them there is the introduction of a new storytelling style, rife with metaphors and references to other works (including La divina commedia); the merciless satire towards a society too vacuously happy for its own good; the sheer beauty of its imagery and protagonists; the haunting soundtrack… the list could go on for a long while. The very title grew into epitomizing a whole lifestyle and impossible dream that everybody dreamt one time or another. As seen from almost sixty years later, La dolce vita’s biggest quality is however the ability of focusing on many aspects of the Italian mindset that would destroy the greatness of the whole country in the end. Watching the movie now it is impossible not to imagine the querulous voice of Fellini mocking us saying “te l’avevo detto!”, that is ‘I told you so!’ – especially because those issues have become global, and are haunting the whole world.

The story of La dolce vita revolves around one week in the life of Marcello (interpreted by Marcello Mastroianni), a disenchanted journalist who ended up covering the gossip column and is now wallowing in the absurdities of the socialites scene. Along with his photographer Paparazzo – from whom the term paparazzi derives – he drifts between unrequited loves, empty intellectuals, rich aristocrats who grew disconnected with reality, orgies, the desperate hope for a miracle, mindless parties and even an encounter with a sea monster. None of his life experiences really matter in the end, as he just does not possess any power to change the self-destructive reality around him. For all the beauty – fake or real – he witnesses, he cannot but accept the sense of eventual doom, and become part of it. If this description reminded you of another Italian hit, the much more recent La grande bellezza, you are not mistaken at all. The newer film is a sort of spiritual heir to La dolce vita, and it represents in fact the proof that Fellini was absolutely right: Rome, and all it stands for, is beyond saving. Only a glimpse of “the great beauty” it still hides somewhere can save those who are imprisoned into it – and finding it requires exceptional skill.

For such a depressing philosophy, La dolce vita is in fact a very romantic movie. Its final message is that no matter how desperate the situation actually is, we can still find a personal salvation through ethics, honesty and hope. When the film was originally released, right in the middle of the so-called Italian economic miracle, its cruel portrayal of Italy wasn’t received well. While it flew high above the heads of most public, it earned Fellini scathing reviews from that very social class it roasted: the Vatican and the Ministry of Culture both even tried to ban it. Only the former succeeded. This notwithstanding, Fellini’s masterpiece defined an almost magical vision of Italy. The bath in the Fontana di Trevi, the glamour of via Vittorio Veneto, the stark modernism of the Eur district… so many ideals have survived through the years, and are still celebrated to this day. Watching La dolce vita is a bit like entering a parallel universe where Italy still is the beating heart of the world, and where no dream ever really dies.