The Post-war Italy
Around the 1940s, Mussolini’s fascist government in Italy began to fall. The tumble gave birth to works in the style of neorealism, cinema that presents the reality of post-war Italy. Directors such as Giuseppe De Santis and Roberto Rosselini became figures who played an important role in neorealism. In the next half-decade, many Italian artists slowly abandoned the principles of neorealism.
They turned to adaptations of classic Hollywood styles. It is synonymous with structured narrative and conclusion. On the other hand, Federico Fellini comes with La Dolce Vita, one of the films that emerged in this transitional era. The film is one of the milestones in the director’s career as a filmmaker with surreal material that questions changes in the order of morality and values.
The film is listed in the 100 best world cinema versions of Empire, a well-known magazine in England. Fellini opens the film with a strikingly satirical scene in which a helicopter hovering in the air carries a statue of Jesus. The helicopter passed through the ruins, past St. Peter’s Basilica, until it came to a group of bikini-clad women sunbathing. At such a moment, the film highlights the daily life of Marcello, a journalist who often interacts with celebrities in the showbiz world.
He harbored anxiety about his dream of dwelling in the world of literature and publishing his novel behind his glittering field of coverage. In addition, he also has a somber romance with his self-pity lover, Emma. On the other hand, Marcello also fell in love with Maddalena, seduced by a Hollywood actress who was visiting Italy, Sylvia.
Most film philosophers interpret the neorealism style as a cinema replicating reality. That includes using amateur actors and shooting outside the studio to get real sequences. In the film, Fellini denies these two elements. However, most of the setting in La Dolce Vita Fellini is taken in the studio. For example, he highlights the scene of Maddalena and Marcello escort a sex worker to his flooded apartment.
Fellini represents the massive background of the construction of a new building and the ambiance of the voices of construction workers in many scenes. This situation contrasts with Marcello’s everyday world of being like Via Veneto roadside cafes and bars. There is a display of the polarity of the Italian face at the time, which simultaneously resonates with the dichotomy of Marcello’s journey.
Perhaps, Fellini did it related to his past. In terms of background, Fellini grew up as a filmmaker in the era of Italian neorealism. He wrote the screenplay for Rome, Open City, an early neorealism film that gained worldwide attention. Fellini’s surreal sequences are also applied to the Marcello with Sylvia scene in Fontana di Trevi. In the scene at the iconic fountain, the nighttime setting suddenly changes to morning in an instant, and the fountain is dead.
In the minds of the audience, it leaves whether it is just a dream and the protagonist’s imagination or the two of them soaking up the night in Trevi. Another picture arrangement is when Marcello, who has worked in advertising, has a party with his colleagues at a house by the beach.
In the end, all the characters head to the beach while seeing the fishermen dragging the dead jumbo stingray. Not far from the point of finding the fish, there was a woman Marcello had met at a restaurant, Paola. She told Marcello that she was not from where she is now living. She often misses her place of origin. It could be that the location of the beach of the fish fishermen indicates the area of origin of Paola.
However, Marcello, in a semi-conscious state, did not realize that. The woman across from him was Paola, whom he had met before. On the other hand, one of the contributions of the term La Dolce Vita in journalism may be the paparazzi. The term refers to celebrity stalker photographers and often crosses ethical lines. It became a play on the name of the character Paparazzo, Marcello’s tandem partner on the field.
His name allegedly comes from the word mosquito in Italian. Unlike the title, which more or less means the sweetness of life, the film offers more tragedy but irony amidst the glittering inserts of Via Veneto. The death of Marcello’s best friend and mentor, Steiner, became a tragedy that Fellini presented thickly. He is an intellectual who does not seem to have the problems of most people’s lives.
However, he ended his life tragically. Throughout the film, Fellini displays a lot of the behavior of the paparazzi, who, without empathy for hunting photos, are often celebrities.
A Sweet Resolution
At the moment, when Marcello photographed Steiner’s wife, who was mourning, and when Robert, Sylvia’s husband, beat Marcello as well while Robert was sleeping in the car, the paparazzi were free to direct the lens to manipulate the position of Robert sleeping in the car. Such an image becomes relevant to the conditions in the modern era when many journalism practices still cross the boundaries of privacy.
It just sees humans as mere news objects. Unlike most Hollywood films at the time, La Dolce Vita has neither a sweet ending nor a closing resolution. It seems, even though Italian cinema has begun to drift with the Hollywood style. However, Fellini did not want to join the fight. The ongoing phenomenon in the Italian film industry at the time Fellini poke through one of the scenes in the film.
In a specific scene, a reporter arrives in Rome asking Sylvia a question that says whether neorealism is dead. On the other hand, the film, which turns out to be not Hollywood at all, seems to be the director’s answer. However, the film is relatively easy for the audience to watch, even ideal as the first director’s film for those unfamiliar with his other works. People recognized his quality when the film was released, winning many awards, including the Palme d’Or.
Apart from surviving decades better than most films of the ’60s, his approach to realism and his influence can still be felt in contemporary film. It became a masterpiece that any film lover would like to know better.
When it comes to structuring, Fellini bases La Dolce Vita on very simple paradigms. The circularity of the plot represents the protagonist’s arrogance, and the alternation of nocturnal ascension suggests hedonistic avoidance. It acts as a diurnal descent into the darkness of the protagonist’s daily existence. After the constant repetition of people’s attention, it is easy to see that the coherence of the plot’s sense does not matter at all to Fellini.
During the culmination of a fanatical pursuit of the false Mary apparitions, an older woman said that it did not matter if they saw the Virgin Mary. In the same way, it does not matter whether each sequence has occurred in reality or only in Marcello’s subconscious. However, it does not matter whether the character is unaware of Marcello’s attempts to reach out to the algorithm or deliberately ignores it.
Most importantly, the characters in the layers, real or imaginary, share Marcello’s misplaced feelings. It is his bitterness and resignation that each character all attempts or fails to escape from such conditions. Minor characters in specific scenes turn to the sacred and the profane. All the characters deceive themselves because they cannot face the meaninglessness of each other’s existence. However, the film plays a pervasive cynicism itself.
On the other hand, Fellini does not mean the film to be a complete depiction of Italian society in the early ’60s. Nor is it in itself an attack on any ideology. Simply put, it is an allegorical representation of a paradoxical condition. Each character finds themselves alone, caught between the need to overcome their loneliness. Their systematic failure of any successful communication attempt illustrates the existential paradox with which any human experience is concerned.
Apart from the social and historical determinants, one can relate that the film is timeless.
The First Cut
On August 27, 1959, Fellini finished the filming of La Dolce Vita. When the first cut was completed, at 18,000 feet in 35mm, the film was over three and a half hours long. Fellini also worked with the film’s editor, Leo Cattozzo, with the sympathetic help of Angelo Rizzoli, against the interference of Giuseppe Amato. Nowadays, the film wants to cut more controversial scenes for fear of offending. Therefore, Fellini lowered the film to 17,000 feet, slashing an additional 200 feet, bringing it to its final release time of 174 minutes.
Oddly enough, the American version is slightly longer and contains the sequences removed in the Italian version. However, Fellini photographed the film superbly in the black-and-white CinemaScope. It is a European variation known as Totalscope. Mostly ’60s of all cinematic formats, by the talented Otello Martelli, and with a haunting musical score by Fellini’s collaborator Nino Rota. The film made its public appearance in February 1960, becoming a critical but commercial sensation.
Although the Catholic Church condemned the film outright, that did not stop the film’s success. It made the film a scandalous success and certainly very moral. However, one of the phenomenal scenes from the famous image of the huge Christ statue shows that hope of redemption is always there. Even if the audience tries to reject the film in search of mortal pleasure and fame, as Fellini always says, he wants to shoot with the camera a huge fire at the height of its splendor just before its destruction.
- Dixon, W. W. (2010). La Dolce Vita. Senses of Cinema.
- Sowers, S. (2020). La Dolce Vita: Imagining Escapism, Passion and Self-Growth in American Films set in Italy.
- Zimmermann, Z. (2010). Film as History: Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as a Historical Artifact. Elements, 6(2).