“By 1965 there’ll be total depravity. How squalid everything will be”
–Transvestite character, La Dolce Vita
Fifty year anniversary of the filming of Fellini’s classic
by Helen Donlon
Famously banned in Spain until 1981, La Dolce Vita (1960) is one of the great masterpieces of European cinema. Inspired by Balenciaga, Fellini’s neo-realist tale of a week in the life of a journalist in Rome brought the director to the attention of all cinema lovers, and out of the arthouse stream his earlier films had placed him within.
The lead character, Marcello, played by Italian matinee idol Marcello Mastroianni is a gossip columnist in Rome after the war. The term paparazzi became a word of everyday usage in most European languages, thanks to the character Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), a celebrity sneak photographer who plays Marcello’s fast and loose sidekick in the film. Similarly, after the general release of La Dolce Vita in February 1960, the adjective Felliniesque was coined.
Marcello moves in a world of conspicuous and semi-celebrity epicureans and their hangers-on, drifting merrily through the godless society that was fast becoming the norm. Like Eliot’s Waste Land or Dante’s Inferno, the emerging post-war ‘sweet life’ in which Rome is depicted as a moral wasteland is filled with a directionless hedonism. The now iconic scene of Anita Ekberg wading in the Trevi Fountain, basically playing herself, acts as a counterpoint to the empty lives of the characters in later scenes, as they drift into emotional and moral torpor. Allegedly, Mastroianni drank vast amounts of vodka and donned a wetsuit under his clothes in order to muster up the courage to get into the fountain after Ekberg, while she was quite happy to shoot the scene on a cold march day in 1959.
The internationally cast film also stars Lex Barker and Anouk Aimee, and German singer Nico (who charmed her way onto the set) in a small role at a prototypical Felliniesque party in a castle. La Dolce Vita won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960, and was filmed on 80 sets built by Piero Ghirardi. It was mainly filmed at the Cinecitta studios, as well as St. Peter’s Basilica, on the Via Veneto and in various nightclubs. The commanding opening scene features two helicopters. From one a huge statue of Christ is suspended, and Marcello and Paparazzo occupy the other as they fly across Rome with its splendid ancient buildings. The journalists are writing up what is effectively a staged second coming of Jesus Christ, whilst calling out to sunbathing girls on the rooftops. (A scene in Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin, in which a helicopter transports a statue of Lenin is a clear reference to this).
In fact dozens of films have referenced Fellini’s classic, and he is essentially one of the first internationally recognised auteurs. In his review of the film, Pasolini said, “La dolce vita was too important to be discussed as one would normally discuss a film. Fellini is unquestionably an author rather than a director.”
Partly inspired by the Montesi Affair of the 1950s, La Dolce Vita’s Rome is rife with moral dissonance, depicted in expressionist caricature or sometimes just pure neo-realism. Marcello’s long-suffering girlfriend (Yvonne Furneaux) craves domesticity and monogamy. A wealthy aristocrat holds a lavish orgy at her beachside mansion to celebrate her divorce.
The film broke US box office records for a foreign feature at the time, and was an enormous box office success in Europe.
To coincide with the 50th anniversary of the shooting of Federico Fellini’s emblematic film La Dolce Vita, the island’s Terranova restaurant will host an inaugural celebration in memory of the Italian director on 27th May, with a show and screening at 7pm.
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