La Dolce Vita is arguably Federico Fellini’s best remembered work and his best hit. The film was the first arthouse film to appear in the US Box Office Top 10 during its release. Americans were awed by its taboo-breaking spectacle and by decadent Europe in general. A wave of lesser imitations followed and Fellini gained his reputation as one of the prominent voices of art cinema.
When it came to plot, Fellini was a modernist, preferring a more abstract approach. Instead of a conventional narrative with a beginning, then a middle and then an ending, Fellini constructed an episodic structure which recalls poetry and the cubist paintings of Picasso. In other words, there is a story but not one that can be simply written down. Keeping it short, the film follows Marcello, a celebrity columnist, as he wanders around Rome, alternately attracted and repelled by the people he meets all living “la dolce vita”, or the “sweet life”.
From its opening image of a statue of Jesus being flown into Rome by a helicopter, the themes are flying. Throughout the film’s long yet rewarding 167 minutes, we are introduced to a variety of lost people. Celebrities tired of the attention, bachelors always on the prowl and the paparazzi that follow them. We meet people confronted with Rome’s rich history who have no idea how to emulate the glories of the past and people clinging to a religion that is rapidly losing its power.
La Dolce Vita is the very definition of the word zeitgeist, the spirit of the time. Its well-paced episodes uncover the attitudes and beliefs of Rome at the start of the Sixties. The myths and superstitions of the past are mere decoration to a Rome that is becoming increasingly secular. In the film, a miracle is just another excuse for another media circus and a priest hears a confession during a late-night party in which boredom leads to stripteases and orgies.
Marcello Mastroianni is great as the columnist who strives to escape his cynical and decadent lifestyle, but who sees no alternative. The film is almost effortlessly stylish and plays best on a big screen. While portraying all the inadequacies of this lifestyle, the film also retains its vibrancy and energy
However, while the film does have a lot to show and tell, it can’t help but feel over-stretched. Unfortunately, a zeitgeist film such as this can’t help but be almost hopelessly dated. Many of the scenes, so shocking when they first played, are now not much worse than the stories one sees after a cursory glance at any tabloid. The final image, as evocative an image of innocence lost as it may be, rings of preaching. It is that oddest of films, the entertaining, horrible and attractive work of a man who is repulsed by the world he has found himself in as well as being intrigued by its vigour and its joie de vivre. A deep film about a shallow world.