For a dizzying moment in the disorientated postwar era, cinema and Federico Fellini put Rome at the centre of the world; now his early masterpiece from 1960, La Dolce Vita, is rereleased as part of a retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. It’s a film with Fellini’s genius for revealing dreamlike and surreal images everywhere, especially that extraordinary image of Christ being helicoptered over the city, apparently on its way to be delivered to the pope.
The movie finds Rome in a hysterical, excitable but also somehow desperate mood – the mood of “Il Boom”, that economic and cultural revival in which Italy was euphorically eager to forget the catastrophe of fascism and defeat, and to start all over again, in a headlong rush of modernity and excitement: movies, music, fashion and style. It is as if Rome’s new contemporary sexiness and hedonism has revived the spirit of pre-Christian Rome and pagan ritual. But this coexists with a secret melancholy, a spiritual bust to go with the boom: ennui and fear.
Marcello Mastroianni plays Marcello, a handsome and jaded gossip journalist who is a man about town, a night owl, a womaniser whose affairs drive his regular girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furnaux) to despair. Most importantly, he is an habitué of the fashionable Via Veneto, where Hollywood and Italian movie stars are routinely surrounded by aggressive photographers; here is where Marcello’s own colleague, Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), gave the world a new word. (When Marcello addresses him crisply as “Paparazzo!” it now sounds accusing in an unintentional way.) For shooting nighttime scenes, Fellini created a gigantic full-scale replica of the Via Veneto at the Cinecittà studios, and Shawn Levy’s book about Rome in this period, Dolce Vita Confidential, amusingly describes how Fellini came to prefer his own artificial Via Veneto – larger, straighter – to the real thing.
Marcello despises himself for having failed to write a novel, and he is actually acquainted with a serious and much-lauded writer known simply as Steiner (played by Alain Cuny), that name perhaps signalling a Mitteleuropaïsch seriousness at odds with Rome’s carefree world. It is Steiner who is to be the touchstone of Marcello’s fragile idealism, his sense that he might one day make something of himself; and it is Steiner’s awful fate that is to seal Marcello’s disillusion: especially the way the paparazzi behave around his widow.
Is Marcello a damned soul? There is a whiff of sulphur in his relationship with Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), whose name perhaps recalls Mary Magdalene, especially when at the end of a long evening they go off together with a sex worker to her wretched apartment to have sex there, for the low-life thrills. (The woman hopes that Marcello might give her 2,000 lire in the morning; he does not.)
Fellini contrives an amazing sequence when Marcello has to cover a spasm of religious hysteria when two children are reported to have had a vision of the Blessed Virgin: an impromptu media circus convenes as the sick and the disabled arrive en masse, hoping to be cured. And it is disturbing and even moving when Marcello’s handsome and roguish old father (Annibale Ninchi) arrives in Rome without warning and Marcello takes him for a night on the town; the older man charms the local young women, one of whom – to Marcello’s consternation and dismay – takes him home to her apartment.
There is an excruciating and mortifying sequel as his father suffers some kind of medical crisis, brought on, we can only assume, by incautious exertion, or the prospect of exertion. Marcello has to come round to this woman’s place to get him a taxi – having already confessed to a friend that he doesn’t even know his father very well. He sees in him a picture of both his future and present self. (Paolo Sorrentino’s ageing journalist Jep in his 2013 film The Great Beauty, played by Toni Servillo, is in some way a conflation of Marcello and his father.) There is something so sad in it.
An extended sequence in a 16th-century castle as the guest of a decadent and financially ruined aristocratic family is the prelude to a gloomy twilight of Marcello’s self-respect. It is a comparable, lugubrious mood that Antonioni found in his movie La Notte a year later. More parties lead to that strange beach confrontation with the fish, a sea monster that is a portent of disaster.
La Dolce Vita is widely remembered for Marcello gallantly disporting himself in the Trevi fountain with the visiting Hollywood diva Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a scene that might be simply too preposterous, were it not for the inspired ending that Fellini conjures. Suddenly, like a hard cut, night turns to morning, like awakening from a dream, and the pair are still fully clothed in the fountain, blinking in the daylight. Have they really been like that, all night, or is the whole thing a dream? And the press interview scene is bizarre, with Sylvia asked whether she prefers pyjamas or a nightgown, or if she thinks neorealism is dead.
Like the interview scenes in Godard’s Breathless that same year, it shows a fascination with the theatre of celebrity. It is a brilliant film, but there is nothing sweet about it.
• La Dolce Vita is rereleased in the UK on 3 January.
Source: The Guardian