ROMAN SCANDALS – BOUND TO SHOCK WITH ITS TRUTH!
It was a rather chilly evening in late winter or early spring when Federico Fellini’s film crew arrived at Fontana di Trevi in Rome to shoot a scene that would become this film’s most famous. Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni were set to get into the fountain and wade around in the cold water. According to the legend, Ekberg was a real trooper and resisted the pain, while Mastroianni had to finish a bottle of vodka and get completely drunk before he stepped into the fountain. It’s not always pretty when a classic is created, but the final results are beautifully dark.
Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is a reporter in Rome who covers big news stories as well as celebrities traipsing around the Eternal City. We follow him as he reports on a big statue of Christ being delivered by helicopter to Saint Peter’s Square; the arrival of Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a famous Swedish-American Hollywood actress who arrives in the city and goes out to party; and the hoopla surrounding two children who claim to have seen the Madonna, even though the church remains very skeptical.
In the evenings, Marcello attends clubs and parties thrown by intellectual friends, but he also butts heads with Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), his fiancée who knows that he’s constantly cheating on her and grows increasingly tired of his behavior…
Very little here is sweet
8½ (1963) will always be Fellini’s great masterpiece, but there’s no denying that La Dolce Vita has had an immense cultural impact as well. It’s not just about scenes like Ekberg luring Mastroianni into Fontana di Trevi, or that majestic opening shot where the history of Rome in the shape of an old aqueduct meets the modern (a helicopter) and the spiritual (the Christ statue being flown into Rome).
To some people, this film has also become a shallow symbol of how life in that city should be lived, even though the title is ironic. “La dolce vita” means “the sweet life”, but there is very little in the film that is sweet, the exception perhaps being the cute teenage girl who makes an impression on Mastroianni’s jaded reporter a few times. Most of his experiences are depressing and empty. The partying, where pop culture meets intellectualism, seems mechanic in spite of its extravagance, but neither is Marcello’s relationship with his fiancée much of an inspiration; Emma is prone to overdoses and even though the couple seems unable to just break up it doesn’t mean that their dependence on each other is healthy. There is so much in the film that’s crushing to watch, including Marcello’s sad relationship with his dad, his friendship with Steiner (Alain Cuny), the intellectual who has a family but confesses that he longs for a different life, and the tragic outcome of the Madonna sighting. As in 8½, it’s easy to read much of Fellini’s own worries, doubts and flaws into Marcello’s character.
At the same time, it is also clear that Fellini and his crew get a kick out of making this “vita” look as “dolce” as possible. Much of it was shot on a Cinecittá sound stage, where art director and costume designer Piero Gherardi pulled out all stops to make it as colorful as possible – even though it was all shot in an ominous black-and-white hue.
Due to the way sexuality and the Catholic Church is portrayed here, the film did cause some debate on the eve of its release. Condemned by the Vatican and banned in Spain, La Dolce Vita obviously touched a nerve. It may be hard today to even realize what was so bad about it. Especially since it is so clear that beneath its orgiastic surface is so much criticism of what the Church would also find offensive.
La Dolce Vita 1960-Italy. 175 min. B/W. Widescreen. Produced by Giuseppe Amato, Angelo Rizzoli. Directed by Federico Fellini. Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi. Cinematography: Otello Martelli. Music: Nino Rota. Costume Design, Art Direction: Piero Gherardi. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Marcello Rubini), Anita Ekberg (Sylvia), Anouk Aimée (Maddalena), Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noel, Alain Cuny.
Trivia: Pier Paolo Pasolini contributed to the screenplay. Henry Fonda was allegedly considered for a role. The German singer Nico plays herself. Mastroianni’s photographer friend in the film is called Paparazzo; the word “paparazzi” is now another term for intrusive photographers.
Oscar: Best Costume Design. Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “[Mastroianni] fell forward three times. I had to fish him up and make sure he was given dry clothes. They gave me brandy so I wouldn’t catch a cold. When the scene was shot, Fellini said ‘thank God.’ […] He discovered me when I was in Rome making an American movie. I was driving around in a Mercedes Cabriolet and that’s how he saw me. He hadn’t seen any of my movies.” (Ekberg, Nordstjernan)