Writing for Cahiers Du Cinema, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze wrote that Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is “a succession of cinematic moments” and it’s difficult to argue against this assessment. There’s very little in the way of an overarching narrative here, and tonally Fellini jumps from irreverence to tragedy, from dream-like stylisation to neo-realism, in the blink of an eye and yet there are moments that feel deeply profound.
Instead of a conventional narrative, La Dolce Vita is comprised of a series of vignettes, following gossip journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) as he navigates the peaks and troughs of his profession, from glamorous dinner parties to the more sordid, corrupting side of the job. Fellini adroitly contrasts Marcello’s hedonistic lifestyle, with the more intrusive, corrupting influence of the press. When a close friend dies in a murder/suicide, Marcello finds himself too close to the story, and has to contend with his colleagues ghoulishly lurking around his deceased friends house.
Mastroianni’s reporter is effortlessly cool, while remaining unapologetically frivolous and cynical about his profession. his slick performance feels like a dry run for Guido from 8 1/2, but there is a more pervasive melancholy and vulnerability to his role here (most evident in the sequence with his father). Despite his cynical worldview, Marcello still aspires to a more respectable life, and makes a few attempts to write his novel before the seductive decadence of his career draw him back again, Mastroianni is incredibly likeable, despite his many dalliances with an heiress and most iconic, a film star played by Anita Ekberg. The moment Ekberg and Mastroianni frolic in the Trevi fountain is one of those purely cinematic moments that sticks in the memory, similarly to the final shot of the film, which echoes Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups. The meaning might be nebulous, but the feelings these scenes evoke are something that can only really be achieved on film.
Purely from an endurance point of view, it’s very long – 176 minutes is always going to be a tough sell, let alone for a black and white foreign film, but Fellini has a lightness of touch that makes it always entertaining. Unlike, say Michelangelo Antonioni or Bernardo Bertolucci, Felllini’s films are rarely sombre affairs, and La Dolce Vita is no exception. This never feels like it’s trying to be important. It never feels bloated or overlong, quite a feat for a film with virtually no plot!
Aside from anything else it’s just so cool – even today, the sharp suits and luxurious evening gowns are jaw dropping, and influenced the way people dressed at high society parties. It even introduced the word Paparazzi into the broader vernacular. (Derived from the name of Marcello’s photographer friend) This restoration by Criterion looks absolutely stunning, with the black and white cinematography looking as if it could have been shot yesterday. The black suits against the white architecture, the old fashioned statues, all looks so crisp and clear. It gets said a lot, but almost every frame could be a work of art in and of itself. The picture is so clear you can even see the string used for certain effects!
La Dolce Vita is one of those films that might feel like a slog from a modern perspective, but it’s one that you find yourself thinking about days, even weeks later. One of the all-time great pieces of cinema, Fellini’s cutting and incisive indictment of the function of the press remains an entrancing delight from start to finish. On a more personal level, the story of Marcello’s search for meaning in his frivolous, carefree existence, serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who abandons their calling for an easy life. A beautifully shot, beguiling masterpiece.
New visual essay by Kogonada; New interview with filmmaker Lina Wertmüller; David Forgacs discusses the historical context of the film; New interview with film journalist Antonello Sarno about the fashion of the film; Audio interview with actor Marcello Mastroianni from the early 1960s; Felliniana, a presentation of ephemera related to La Dolce Vita. PLUS: An essay by critic Gary Giddins