On a March evening in Rome some fifty years ago, Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni stepped into the cold waters of the Trevi Fountain in Rome to shoot what would become Italian director Federico Fellini’s most famous and iconic scene: Marcello and Sylvia’s watery midnight tryst, unconsummated like the majority of the relationships within La Dolce Vita, all flowing with sexual energy but ending in the clarity of the dawn light with the unfulfilment of shallow, empty hedonism. In Hollywood, the Hays Code was weakening but still in force, restricting the moral, religious and sexual content of American films; yet the influence European cinema was pushing back the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable for films to portray and communicate, which would eventually lead to the scrapping of the Code in 1968.
La Dolce Vita is important for it marks one of the important victories in this process. It was as much an artistic leap for the director; Fellini’s previous three films had perhaps examined similar themes such as religion and existential isolation, but they had still been narratively straightforward and coherently moralistic. What La Dolce Vita signalled was evident from the famous opening shot of the statue of Christ being hoisted by helicopter over the streets of Rome: here was a society freed from the constraints of religion, guilt and Original Sin, but what takes its place? The film is a freeform exploration of this brave new world, eschewing traditional forms to create an episodic, loosely-constructed mosaic of life without a god.
It is especially prescient of Fellini to presage what now seems an everyday given: the culture of the celebrity. La Dolce Vita came before Beatlemania, yet identified much of what was to come: even supplying the name to the baying press-packers who follow these lauded luminaries around – paparazzi. Marcello may well have been an idealist when he entered journalism, but these principles have long been forgotten by the time we join him on his helicopter ride over the Eternal City trying to pick up girls’ numbers above the din of the rotorblades. His most daring assignments now, save for covering supposed sightings of the Virgin Mary, seem to involve little more than escorting a buxom ‘actress’ on a tour of the Vatican and the Roman nightlife.
One aspect I have noticed of Fellini’s films from La Dolce Vita onwards is their increasing reflection of a globalised world: see where Sylvia is interviewed by journalists from all around Europe, their many different tongues appearing unitedly to question this obviously worldwide film star. Later on, languages and music from around the world seamlessly flow into one, marking at once the increasingly close-knit homogenised world emerging in the 1960s, but also rather humourously the way everyone in this superficial world is pretending to listen to one another, though not really paying any heed at all. In the grand, historically-rich surroundings of the Caracalla Baths, an Italian singer apes for his audience American rock n’ roll – the epitome of twentieth-century mass-produced mass-consumed popular culture.
Would the film make an interesting double-bill with Dr. Strangelove (1964)? Both exist in the shadow of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but while Kubrick’s film plays a game of blackly-comic satire, Fellini takes a different path: in the face of instant global annihilation he offers his characters nihilistic debauchery as their escape, or at least diversion. The antics of Marcello’s fellow partyers are of little consequence or lasting joy, but is anything going to last anyway? Better to gain cheap thrills while there’s still a world to live in.
Perhaps I have highlighted too much of the pessimism of Fellini’s film; after all, one need only watch Pietro Germi’s hilariously comic Divorzio all’italiana (1961), which dramatises for comic effect a ravenous town of Sicilian men (and their wives) flocking to see this ‘scandalous’ new film, signalling the beginning of a new era of permissivity and sexual frankness. And for all of its dire warnings for Western society, La Dolce Vita remains immense fun to watch, like all of Fellini’s films so full of joy, and so celebratory of life’s rich diversities.