It is said that Russian-born writer Vladimir Nabokov’s book Lolita had made Lolita famous, and not he. This seem to suggest that, as the phrase began to enter the popular consciousness, the actual artistry and intent behind the book was increasingly ignored, and instead the novel’s object of desire began to take on a life of its own, with its own connotations and meanings. La Dolce Vita is undeniably Federico Fellini’s most famous film, and possibly the most well-known Italian-made film ever, but it seems to me that over the years, like Lolita, its name and the idea of the film have become more well-known than the actual film itself. The word ‘paparazzi’ is used all over the world to signify over-zealous press photographers, but i would hazard that few users of the word know its derivation.
This seems to be a consequence of the reaction to the film when it was first released. This is no better illustrated than in the famous sequence in Pietro Germi’s wonderful Divorzio all’italiana (1961), when a screening of the Fellini film causes both outrage and wonderment in the Sicilian small-town audience. For the Catholic Church, the film was sacrilegeous, and subsequently banned for many years in certain areas. Fellini had had brushes with the Church before: La Strada had been warmly received, but both Il Bidone and Le Notti Di Cabiria had contained sufficiently edgy material to irk some at the Vatican.
Controversy can often lead to legend; the notoriety of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange owes as much to its hasty withdrawal from release after a series of ‘copycat’ killings as it does to the actual content of the film itself. So, with the widespread debate and controversy over La Dolce Vita, its legend was born. It was a massive commercial success, becoming both a domestic and worldwide box-office hit, and making international stars of Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee and Anita Ekberg, as well as encouraging people to jump into the Fontana di Trevi.
This much seems to be well known; so too, the phrases ‘la dolce vita’ and ‘paparazzi’. But Fellini’s filmmaking roots were in the Italian neo-realist movement; he had worked with Rossellini on the classics Roma, Città Aperta and Paisà, both profoundly moral films about the effect of the Second World War on the Italian people. His earlier films, whilst being distinctively ‘Fellinian’, still betrayed hints of the neorealist ideology and morality, using naturalistic environments, actors and settings. Had he now discarded this in favour of the Roman high life?
The answer, of course, is no. La Dolce Vita is a satire of the so-called ‘sweet life’ enjoyed by the capital’s wealthy and famous. In his earlier film, I Vitelloni, Fellini had looked at a group of young directionless men, unwilling to grow up or leave their sleepy seaside town. In that film, without a doubt autobiographical in nature, we can see the director as part of their milieu, but also unsettled, and to an extent morally detatched from the others. At the end, his character Moraldo leaves the town for the big city, reluctant to leave his comfort zone but feeling it necessary to move on, and grow up.
To an extent, there is similarity in La Dolce Vita; we see the decadent classes partying, dancing, cavorting up and down Rome’s Via Veneto, and engaging in orgies and debauchery. But this is all directionless, unrewarding fodder, not leading to anything except its own perpetuation. At the centre of this is Marcello, a reporter for a sensationalist newspaper, who is apparently meant to be covering these events. His lifestyle certainly appears glamourous; he has liasons with both a beautiful wealthy heiresses Maddalena and an improbably-proportioned film star Sylvia, as well as other encounters in clubs, bars and parties. In an early scene, he flies over the city in a helicopter, under the pretence of following the transit of a statue of Christ, but ends up trying to pick up some more girls.
Despite the glamour, the film is not glamourising his lifestyle. We may wish to be him, but he doesn’t seem to wish to be himself. He is constantly trying to find some kind of meaning to life, but ends up spiritually isolated, if not physically isolated. In one scene, we see Marcello in a restaurant attempting to write an article on his typewriter, but finding himself disturbed by a young girl working there, the almost angel-like Paola. She is the only truly beautiful character in the film, and part of Marcello realises this, but he cannot change his ways. In the film’s climactic scene, on a beach as so often Fellini would end his films, Marcello encounters the girl again; a grotesque fish has washed up on the shore, and the girl is trying to shout something to him from further along the beach, but he cannot hear her, in the end giving up and returning to join his partying friends. This should be his moment for redemption; the beauty of the girl and the ugliness of the creature exhibiting the rich variety of life, and living, and reality. But he chooses to ignore this, in favour of the falseness of his chosen existence.
This is the main thrust of the narrative, but the film is so richly dense of symbols and colour that any overly simplistic reading does it no justice. Much has been made of the so-called ‘magic number seven’ that seems to permeate the film: the film contains seven distinct episodes, and occurs over seven nights, supposedly a pointed reference to the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues, the seven days of creation, and so on. This is just one aspect of the heavy religious symbolism present in the film, which can be read any number of ways; Fellini is always rather ambiguous when it comes to his portrayal of religious matters, and this is no exception.
The time of the film’s production is also important. It was released in 1960, and we can see the seeds of the decade to come: at a party, a rock and roll band plays, a sign of the increasing Americanisation of popular culture, at the expense of national identity and tradition. Swinging Rome could still claim to be the centre of European culture, but its importance is lessening; post-Beatlemania, ‘Swinging London’ would soon have hegemony, reflected by Fellini’s contemporary Michelangelo Antonioni’s migration to there to make Blowup. There is also the invisible spectre of the threat of nuclear war, discussed at one point between two intellectuals. Does the hedonistic nihilism of the glitterati stem from the knowledge that the world could end within a few minutes of the nuclear button being pressed?
Ultimately, one’s reading of La Dolce Vita is, like any great work of art, dependent on what the viewer brings to it; those fixated by surface glamour will be entranced by the world Fellini conjures up, and want to be part of Marcello’s lifestyle. Pessimists may see the film as further signalling the death of Western civilization, in favour of a decadent, thrill-seeking throwaway culture. But for me, the film is all of these things, and much more. Fellini famously frequently filmed circuses, clowns, stage acts, and loved combining imagery of the beautiful along with the grotesque. In showing us these artifices, he illustrates the absurdity of living. But, as he showed with the adolescents of I Vitelloni, the strongman Zampanò in La Strada, the crook Augusto in Il Bidone, and our protagonist Marcello in La Dolce Vita, these artifices are no substitute for living itself.