La Dolce Vita Movie: A Closer Look
Little did anyone know, when Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita was released in 1960, it would soon become a world-wide sensation. Today, it is known to be one of the greatest films in the history of world cinema and it still remains very popular in the realm of Italian cinema. The film focuses on the main character, a journalist named Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who stumbles apathetically through the luxury, debauchery, and overindulgence of high-society Roman life as he tries to find meaning but ultimately fails to do so.
Upon its release, many movie critics could simply not agree if the film was a hit or a pretentious piece that simply reached too far in getting its point across. Upon watching La Dolce Vita, it is clear to see that it is not like any other film. There are odd scenes that may be described as expressionistic, while others scrape along the heels of Neorealism, and still others are nearly purely symbolic. Whatever the case, the film’s popularity can be easily seen through the undying phrase “La dolce Vita,” which originated from the movie and simply means “The sweet life.”
The film not so much flows as jumps through its story, alternating between night and day scenes, leaving it difficult to tell how much time has passed from one scene from the next. In the opening sequence, while flying a helicopter, Marcello Rubini follows another helicopter transporting a statue of Jesus. Interestingly, this scene was condemned by the Vatican as they believed the film was satirizing the second coming of Christ. The movie itself was also banned in a handful of countries such as Spain which only lifted the ban in 1975 upon the death of its dictator, Francisco Franco.
La Dolce Vita
As night arrives, Marcello encounters an elegant heiress named Maddalena in a nightclub. She is exhausted of the many beautiful things Rome has to offer and carries a similar aloofness as Marcello. They drive an out-of-luck prostitute back to her home, a flooded and dirty place, and Marcello and Maddalena have a brief affair in the bedroom while the prostitute wanders elsewhere. Upon returning to his own home, Marcello discovers his fiance, Emma, left barely conscious from a drug overdose. Despite declaring his love for her as she is rushed to the emergency room, he still attempts to phone Maddalena.
As the day appears, so does Sylvia, a startlingly beautiful actress from America played by Swedish actress Anita Ekberg. Sylvia’s carefree, sensual, and energetic aura easily captures the attention of everyone around her, especially the gaggle of journalists that immediately surround her as soon as she arrives in Italy. The only one that seems to be enthralled is her bored fiance, Robert. Marcello is instantly enchanted by her beauty, and his fascination of her only grows as he wanders around Rome with her, showing her the best views of St. Peter’s Square and dancing with her in the Baths of Caracalla during the evening.
Perhaps the most famous moment between Sylvia and Marcello is their wading through the Trevi fountain. As Marcello and Sylvia stand face to face in the water, Sylvia almost appears like a dreamlike figure: unattainable, too perfect to be true, and as such, Marcello’s infatuation with her dies quickly and unsatisfied, never even able to kiss her. Sylvia’s fiance discovers them in the fountain and slaps Sylvia and attacks Marcello in a fit of jealousy, but the battering leaves Marcello unphased.
Marcello, an increasingly remote and detached figure, balances his working life with luxury, occasionally bringing along his fiance Emma, a woman who loves him madly but receives little to no affection from him. Marcello ventures out to report upon a sighting of the Madonna by two children in the Roman countryside. When they arrive, the spot is crowded with believers and other reporters all focused on two children that point into thin air and exclaim that they see the Madonna as they run around in pursuit of the invisible holy figure through a heavy rain storm. The religious crowd destroys a young tree that is believed to have protected the Madonna, ripping apart the branches and taking them for their own. Amid the chaos, a sickly child who had been brought by his mother to be healed is trampled to death under the feet of the crowd, an event which is taken in unsympathetic passing.
Marcello and Emma visit Steiner’s sumptuous home, a philosophical man with two children and a wife. Also at the house is a group of artists and intellectuals, all of whom, despite all their poetry and guitar strumming, seem somewhat bored of each other. A poet from America tells Marcello it’s better to stay single and free. Later, Emma tells Marcello that she’d like to have a house together like Steiner’s, but Marcello is uninterested.
Perhaps one of the most interesting characters in the film is a teenage girl named Paola who works at a restaurant on the coast. She immediately strikes the viewer differently than any of the other women in the film thus far. She doesn’t try to play cool or aloof, she isn’t disenchanted with life, and she is anything but wealthy. She is an ordinary, working-class girl. As we are introduced to her, she is humming a tune from a jukebox as she cleans off tables while Marcello tries to write a novel. It is revealed that she does not even have a boyfriend. Paola contrasts herself from the other women in Marcello’s life through her purity and youthful innocence. She has not been exposed to the copious sex and drugs of high society, and she seems sincerely happy working at a seaside restaurant, whereas true happiness is as rare as a unicorn in Marcello’s realm, despite all the money at hand.
Marcello briefly meets up with his father, a man he barely knows as he was always away during Marcello’s childhood. Marcello offers to have his father stay with him for awhile so they might finally get to know each other, but his father wants to return home and promptly does so. Another night, Marcello visits a castle with a group of friends, joining with intoxicated party-goers already at the castle. Marcello rediscovers Maddalena and they communicate through an echo chamber while in different rooms. Maddalena asks Marcello to marry her, and while Marcello does not respond to her proposal, he does profess his love to her. Interestingly, another man begins to kiss Maddalena who appears to immediately lose interest in Marcello.
Marcello and Emma inevitably have an argument about their love as they are driving down an empty road. Marcello tosses Emma out of the car and drives away, leaving her wandering down the street for a few hours before he returns and picks her up. Later, they are seen laying together in bed. It is one of the few shots we see of the couple with any kind of emotional closeness, and it is interrupted with a phone call for Marcello who is told that Steiner killed his two children and himself. Marcello, amid a throng of paparazzi, meets with Steiner’s wife outside her home, who is unaware of what happened to her family until Marcello tells her. She gets into a car and is driven away before the paparazzi can get any shots of her breakdown.
What to Know
The next time we see Marcello, he seems older with grey streaks in his hair. He is at a party in a beach-side house that belongs to one of his friends, Riccardo. Riccardo’s ex-wife, Nadia, is excited about her divorce and performs a striptease in an attempt to liven up the dull party. However, many of the party-goers are homosexual and don’t find her performance particularly stimulating. Interestingly, the song that Nadia strips to is the same song that Paola hums as she cleans up her seaside restaurant. Drunkenly, Marcello urges others to start an orgy, but everyone is too inebriated to be interested. Riccardo returns to his house and, enraged, demands that everyone leave.
Marcello and the other party-goers wander around a beach as dawn arrives and discover a strange, dead sea creature that has washed ashore. Despite the creature’s spectacular peculiarness, no one’s attention is fixated on it for very long. From across a channel of water, Paola appears. She smiles, waves, and calls to him, but Marcello is unable to hear her over the swells of the waves and the gusts of wind. He calls back to her, exclaiming that he’s unable to understand her, but she, in turn, cannot hear him. Despite her friendly and welcoming gestures, urging him to cross the channel towards her, he cannot seem to understand and eventually gives up, turning away from Paola and joining the other party-goers. La Dolce Vita ends when Paola watches him go with a smile that is difficult to read.