An Eternal Masterclass In Cinema
Federico Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita has just been reissued in UK cinemas as a restored cut and here’s Tripwire’s contributing writer James DC reviewing it…
La Dolce Vita
Director: Federico Fellini
Stars: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, Nico (1961)
Out in UK cinemas now
Long considered – by anyone with at least two brain cells to rub together and a smattering of aesthetic sensibility – one of the all-time classics of 20th century European cinema, La Dolce Vita (“the good life”), is also seen by many as the Italian film director Federico Fellini’s supreme masterpiece, and they are probably correct by that reckoning. Here we have it in a brand new 4K restoration, on general release in UK cinemas as part of a plethora of Fellini films and related events at the BFI Southbank in London, and all around the UK, over the next year.
If you are not at all familiar with any of Fellini’s work (and so many woefully aren’t, nowadays), then this is as good a place to start as any. In all honesty, it feels almost redundant having to try and persuade anyone why this sublime film is essential viewing: if you are the kind of person who doesn’t give a damn about film history or are inexplicably biased against ‘old’, ‘subtitled’, or ‘foreign’ films, then the following review won’t change your mind; and if you do care about such iconic, unassailable gems of global culture and art, then you will already know, at the very least, why you should see it. But here goes, anyway…
NOTE: the following synopsis contains plot spoilers.
The main story strand centres around the character of Marcello Rubini (played by Marcello Mastroianni), a celebrity/gossip chasing, bourgeois journalist who is living as a libertine, in a limbo-like existence, made up of constant, all-night parties and polygamous shenanigans, in Rome, in the early 1960s. His embittered mistress lives a hermit-like existence whilst he plays around with glamorous film stars like Sylvie (Anita Ekberg) and trips the light fantastic in the flamboyant eateries, bars and the Cinecitta film studios. He meets a young, untethered heiress, Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), whom he has an on-off, desultory affair with, as time goes on. In between gossip gathering stints, various misadventures ensue in further clubs, bars and even a remote stately home-cum-castle inhabited by jaded aristocrats, alongside an assortment of media people, party-goers and hangers-on, most looking for a good time and pushing the envelope of what is permissible. He witnesses an uncanny and disturbing spectacle whereby two religious children wait all night, in the pouring rain, in a field on the outskirts of Rome, in order for the Madonna to miraculously appear to them, whilst hundreds of religious devotees and TV cameramen gather round; it is not known whether it is all a hoax or a case of mass hysteria. Rubini’s elderly father visits and stays, which eventually leads to some uncomfortable, but unspoken home truths. He then meets an old friend who is seemingly contentedly married with children, but who is actually unhappy and frustrated. However, Rubini sees in his friend’s life a blissful stability he himself yearns to attain. Later, his friend is found dead, having killed himself and his two children, in abject despair. Rubini is shocked to the core, but tries to shake it off by continuing to burn the candle at both ends; partying in order to numb the pain. But as it becomes all too familiar, repetitive, exhausting and ultimately isolating, he begins to question his unfaithful trysts and mercurial trajectory in life, leading to an existential, portentous experience at the sea front, in the brightening dawn after an all-night party.
Fellini made La Dolce Vita at the prime of his powers, in between such noted classics as his amazing, early neorealist offering La Strada (1954), and the more surreal and avant garde 8 1/2 (1963). All three are unique, superb films, along with many others in the Italian maestro’s legendary, five decade-long career.
Essentially, La Dolce Vita is a satire. An existential satire, if you will. It is much more, of course, but it works best when it acutely and cynically rips – albeit with gleeful abandon and pizazz – into taboo subjects, such as the delusions and dogma of the Catholic Church, the shallow manipulations and machinations of the media (this is the film that seeded the now ubiquitous term ‘Paparazzi’, for a ruthless celebrity photographer), the sexual peccadilloes and neuroses of both the hyped-up teenage party crowd and the humdrum middle class professionals, and the stark divide between the hand-to-mouth, Brutalist estate-residing poor, and the narcissistic, ‘cosy’ ennui of the privileged elite.
When it appeared in 1961, La Dolce Vita knocked everyone sideways with its bravura technique, stylistic and thematic audacity and frank depictions of the seedier, and sexier, side of Italian cosmopolitan life; so much so that many critics, clerics and cultural gatekeepers attacked it, deeming it ‘immoral’, despite it eventually winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. It was even banned in Portugal and Spain until 1970, and 1975, respectively. If anything is a sign of a great film, it’s that it once rubbed up the pompous cultural elite the wrong way (sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We seem to have come full circle in our pious, Woke-obsessed times! I’m sure there will be quite a few PC-numpties out there who will – upon seeing it for the first time – inaccurately label the film as ‘sexist’, and all the rest. Rest assured that it is nothing of the sort. If they actually knew their film history, they’d know that, along with fellow progressives like Ingmar Bergman, Fellini was one of the male directors at the time to give women actors unusually prominent, meaty roles in his films).
The film is nearly three hours long, but once you are pulled, in the opening moments, into the main character Rubini’s extraordinary perambulations and escapades around the Eternal City, the time will fly. Spiritually and philosophically, we go on a journey of a long dark night of the soul, when, at the end of it all, Rubini’s semi-epiphany reveals to him that however many beautiful, dissolute women he may bed, however many wild nights of ecstatic, drunken abandon he may indulge, he cannot get past the core meaninglessness of his unanchored, fitful existence. It is a haunting, melancholy climax, whilst ironically invested with lyrical poetry and a glint of hope. In fact, the whole film continually pivots between these two states, and much else, besides: it is difficult, here – without recourse to a lengthy deconstruction or thesis – to adequately portray the multifaceted meanings, subtexts and symbolic reflections of the fecund imagination at work in Fellini’s masterstroke of a movie.
There is sly, piquant wit in the dialogue, then emotionally raw diatribes; frantic, carefree dancing on the streets at 11pm, then skewered, static soul-searching among the drained champagne glasses at 3am; gritty realism in the visceral acting here, aloofness and abstract glances there. Funny, joyful, zany scenes abound, to be overshadowed, in an instant, by barely hidden, convulsive angst or grief. The film is, at once, a wistful dream of a butterfly who thought he was a man, and the self-lacerating nightmare of a man who knows he is a ravening wolf. Visually, it is the same delicious paradox, the camera flowing like wine through a cavalcade of remarkable, shifting scenes: chiaroscuro and phantasmagorical castle-ruins one moment, shiny and brittle starlet artificiality the next; dream-like visions of strange sea creatures washed up on shore, juxtaposed with the mundane reality of prostitutes fishing for tricks on the outskirts of desolate condominiums. All of life is here, a metaphorical, universal human history, whilst a pin-sharp focus on detail and happenstance evokes a spectral snapshot of Rome, circa 1960, profound in its guttural, glittering vivacity. Nino Rota’s fabulous (and now justly famous) musical score, with its weird, circus-y melodies, perfectly accompanies much of the larger-than-life action and bizarre yet plausible set pieces. And it goes without saying that all of the actors, many of them female, are first-rate. But it is Mastroianni’s consummate, nuanced, exuberant but wounded performance that will stick with you, always.
This one magnificent and astounding film by Fellini makes a thousand overhyped and supposedly ‘brilliant’ contemporary films look utterly tame and inconsequential, in comparison. However shallow, restrictive and dumb film culture may become in the future, immortal examples of honest and challenging, effervescent and life-affirming visions like La Dolce Vita will always be there to hold up a mirror to the complex, myriad foibles, pains, pleasures and psychopathology of humanity. If you are so inclined to see any of the films in this season, make sure it’s on a big screen, not some bloody titchy toy phone – give the great man some reverence! Go see La Dolce Vita, in this stunning new restoration, asap, and delight in one of Federico Fellini’s, and the world’s, unalloyed masterpieces.
More information on the Fellini UK film season and screenings: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/announcements/federico-fellini-100th-birthday-celebration
Here’s the trailer for the new cinema run too