dolce vita

La dolce vita

[dawl-che vee-tah; Eng. dohl-chey vee-tuh]

La dolce vita (Italian for "The Sweet Life") is a 1960 film directed by Federico Fellini. It is usually cited as the film that signals the split between Fellini's earlier neo-realist films and his later art films.


Set in Rome in the 1950s where Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) covers the more sensational side of the news; movie stars, religious visions, and the decadent aristocracy. The film shows seven days and nights in the life of the reporter. Marcello is living with Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), a woman who loves him and wants a traditional marriage, but she is possessive and shows little ability to understand his unarticulated search for value and meaning in his life. He has encounters with other women – Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), a beautiful, wealthy, and jaded friend/lover, and Anita Ekberg as an American movie star named Sylvia. Marcello also briefly meets an unspoiled and charming girl working at a beachside restaurant.

Themes and motifs

In the film's opening sequence, a plaster statue of Christ suspended by cables from a helicopter, flies past the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct (which you can still see from the railway lines south of Termini station in Rome). The statue is being taken to the Pope at the Vatican. Journalist Marcello and a photographer named Paparazzo (Walter Santesso) follow in a second helicopter. The symbolism of Christ, arms outstretched as if blessing all of Rome as it flies overhead, is soon replaced by the profane lifestyle and neomodern architecture of the "new" Rome founded on the economic miracle of the late 1950s. (Much of this is filmed in Cinecitta or in EUR, the Mussolini-style area south of Rome.) Marcello's helicopter is sidetracked by a group of bikini-clad women sunbathing on a rooftop; hovering above, he tries but fails to elicit a phone number from them. He laughingly shrugs off his failure and continues on.

The delivery of the statue is the first of many recurring scenes placing religious icons in the midst of characters demonstrating their "modern" morality influenced by the booming economy and the emerging mass-consumer lifestyle.

Perceived by the Catholic Church as a parody of Christ's second coming, the scene and the entire film were condemned by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano in 1960. Subject to widespread censorship, the film was banned in Spain until 1975 after the death of Franco.

Initial inspiration

Although critics have often commented on the extravagant costumes used throughout Fellini's films, few realized that the origin behind La dolce vita was the sack dress, introduced by the designer Balenciaga in 1957. In various interviews, Fellini claimed that the film's initial inspiration was in fact this particular style. Brunello Rondi, Fellini's co-screenwriter and long-time collaborator, confirmed this view explaining that "the fashion of women's sack dresses which possessed that sense of luxurious butterflying out around a body that might be physically beautiful but not morally so; these sack dresses struck Fellini because they rendered a woman very gorgeous who could, instead, be a skeleton of squalor and solitude inside."

Credit for the creation of Steiner (played by Alain Cuny), the intellectual who commits suicide after shooting his two children, goes to co-screenwriter, Tullio Pinelli. Having gone to school with Cesare Pavese, the respected Italian novelist, Pinelli had closely followed the writer's career and felt that his over-intellectualism had become emotionally sterile, leading to his suicide in Turin in 1950. This idea of a "burnt out existence" is carried over to Steiner in the party episode where the sounds of nature are not to be experienced first-hand by himself and his guests but in the virtual world of tape recordings.


Most (but not all) of the film was shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Over eighty locations were created by set designer Piero Gherardi including the Via Veneto, the dome of Saint Peter's and the staircase leading up to it, and the various nightclubs. However, other sequences were shot on location such as the party at the aristocrats' castle filmed in the real Bassano di Sutri palace north of Rome. (Some of the servants, waiters, and guests were played by real aristocrats.) Constructed sets were combined with location shots depending on the script's requirements: a real location often "gave birth to the modified scene and, consequently, the newly constructed set." The film's famous last scenes where the monster fish is pulled out of the sea and Marcello waves goodbye to Paola (the teenage "Umbrian angel") were shot on location at Passo Oscuro, a small resort town situated on the Italian coast 30 kilometers north of Rome. Fellini scrapped a major scene that would have involved the relationship of Marcello with an older writer living in a tower, to be played by 1930s Academy Award-winning actress Luise Rainer. After many difficult dealings with Rainer, Fellini abandoned the scene.

The famous scene in the Trevi Fountain was shot in March when nights were still cold. Fellini claimed that Anita Ekberg stood in the cold water in her dress for hours without any trouble while Mastroianni had to wear a wetsuit beneath his clothes - to no avail. It was only after "he polished off a bottle of vodka" that Fellini could shoot the scene with a drunk Mastroianni.

Fellini had considered Henry Fonda for the part of Steiner. But, after the refusal of the American actor, his choice was pending on Alain Cuny and Enrico Maria Salerno. He was helped by the advice of Pier Paolo Pasolini, who favored Alain Cuny.

Seven principal episodes

The most common interpretation of the film is a mosaic linked together by its protagonist, Marcello Rubini, a journalist. The seven principal episodes are as follows:

1. Marcello's evening with the heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée);

2. his long and frustrating night with Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), the Swedish movie star, that ends at dawn in the Trevi fountain;

3. his relationship with the intellectual Steiner (Alain Cuny). This episode is divided into three sequences: a) the encounter, b) the party, and c) the tragedy;

4. the fake miracle;

5. the aristocrat's party;

6. his father's visit;

7. the orgy at the beach.

Interrupting these seven episodes is the restaurant sequence with the angelic Paola; they are framed by a prologue (Christ statue over Rome) and epilogue (the monster fish), giving the film its innovative and symmetrically symbolic structure. The evocations are obvious: seven deadly sins, seven sacraments, seven virtues, seven days of creation.

Other critics claim that this widespread view of the film's structure is inaccurate. Peter Bondanella, for example, argues that "any critic of La dolce vita not mesmerized by the magic number seven will find it almost impossible to organize the numerous sequences on a strictly numerological basis."

An aesthetic of disparity

Critic Robert Richardson suggests that the originality of La dolce vita lies in a new form of film narrative that mines "an aesthetic of disparity." Abandoning traditional plot and conventional "character development," Fellini and co-screenwriters Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli, forged a cinematic narrative that rejected continuity, unnecessary explanations, and narrative logic in favour of seven non-linear encounters between Marcello, a kind of Dantesque Pilgrim, and an underworld of 120 different characters. These encounters build up a cumulative impression on the viewer that finds resolution in an "overpowering sense of the disparity between what life has been or could be, and what it actually is."

In a device used earlier in his films, Fellini orders the disparate succession of sequences as movements from evening to dawn. Also employed as an ordering device is the image of a downward spiral that Marcello sets in motion when descending the first of several staircases (including ladders) that open and close each major episode. The upshot is that the film's aesthetic form, rather than its content, embodies the overall theme of Rome as a moral wasteland.

Critical reception

Writing for L'Espresso, Italian novelist Alberto Moravia highlighted the film's variations in tone: "Highly expressive throughout, Fellini seems to change the tone according to the subject matter of each episode, ranging from expressionist caricature to pure neo-realism. In general, the tendency to caricature is greater the more severe the film's moral judgement although this is never totally contemptuous, there being always a touch of complacence and participation, as in the final orgy scene or the episode at the aristocrats' castle outside Rome, the latter being particularly effective for its descriptive acuteness and narrative rhythm."

In Filmcritica XI, Italian poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini argued that "La dolce vita was too important to be discussed as one would normally discuss a film. Though not as great as Chaplin, Eisenstein or Mizoguchi, Fellini is unquestionably an author rather than a director. The film is therefore his and his alone... The camera moves and fixes the image in such a way as to create a sort of diaphragm around each object, thus making the object’s relationship to the world appear as irrational and magical. As each new episode begins, the camera is already in motion using complicated movements. Frequently, however, these sinuous movements are brutally punctuated by a very simple documentary shot, like a quotation written in everyday language.”

In France, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, film critic and co-founder of Les Cahiers du Cinema, felt that “what La dolce vita lacks is the structure of a masterpiece. In fact, the film has no proper structure: it is a succession of cinematic moments, some more convincing than others… In the face of criticism, La dolce vita disintegrates, leaving behind little more than a sequence of events with no common denominator linking them into a meaningful whole.”

New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, praised Fellini’s “brilliantly graphic estimation of a whole swath of society in sad decay and, eventually, a withering commentary on the tragedy of the over-civilized… Fellini is nothing if not fertile, fierce and urbane in calculating the social scene around him and packing it onto the screen. He has an uncanny eye for finding the offbeat and grotesque incident, the gross and bizarre occurrence that exposes a glaring irony. He has, too, a splendid sense of balance and a deliciously sardonic wit that not only guided his cameras but also affected the writing of the script. In sum, it is an awesome picture, licentious in content but moral and vastly sophisticated in its attitude and what it says.

Awards and recognition

La dolce vita was hailed as "one of the most widely seen and acclaimed European movies of the 1960s" by The New York Times. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design: Black-and-White. La Dolce Vita also earned the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.

It was voted the 7th Greatest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly.

In popular culture

  • The character of Paparazzo, the news photographer (played by Walter Santesso) who works with Marcello, is the origin of the word used in many languages (normally in the plural, paparazzi) to describe intrusive photographers. As to the origin of the character's name itself, Fellini scholar Peter Bondanella argues that although "it is indeed an Italian family name, the word is probably a corruption of the word papataceo, a large and bothersome mosquito. Ennio Flaiano, the film's co-screenwriter and creator of Paparazzo, reports that he took the name from a character in a novel by George Gissing. Gissing's character, Signor Paparazzo, is found in his travel book, By the Ionian Sea (1901).
  • Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation shows a heavy influence from the film. The scene in which Kelly is being interviewed in LIT very much resembles the scene in which Sylvia is being interviewed. Later in the film, Charlotte and Bob meet in the middle of the night and watch the famous fountain scene while drinking sake. Coppola said, "I saw that movie on TV when I was in Japan. It's not plot-driven, it's about them wandering around. And there was something with the Japanese subtitles and them speaking Italian - it had a truly enchanting quality".
  • In the film Goodbye Lenin there is a scene with a statue of Lenin being flown across the city of Berlin, which recalls the opening scenes of the La Dolce Vita.
  • Steiner's pessimistic speech about the future is quoted, in English translation, in the Divine Comedy song "The Certainty of Chance". It is the speech that begins, "Sometimes at night the darkness and silence frightens me. Peace frightens me. I feel it's only a facade, hiding the face of hell."
  • Fashion model and singer Christa Paffgen, who adopted the pseudonym of Nico and later performed with the Velvet Underground before pursuing a solo career, plays herself in the "party of the nobles" scene.
  • Adriano Celentano, who later became famous in Italy as a singer and actor, appears in the scene in the pseudo-ancient Roman nightclub, where Marcello makes his first advances to Sylvia.
  • The Korean film A Bittersweet Life makes reference to the film. The title itself is a pun on the English translation of "La dolce vita", and the restaurant that the protagonist enforces for the mob is called La Dolce Vita.
  • Bob Dylan's "Motorpsycho Nitemare" references the title of the film, as does Blondie's "Pretty Baby" from Parallel Lines.
  • While Homer Simpson is dressing for his date with Marge in Some Enchanted Evening, he hums the La dolce vita theme.
  • The Steve Martin film L.A. Story opens with a hotdog stand dangling under a helicopter passing by a roof-top pool, with the sunbathing women waving as it passes, an obvious reference to La dolce vita's opening scene of a religious statue being carried into the Vatican.
  • In the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, a blonde friend of the protagonist dances in the fountain until she is "rescued" by a male friend of theirs and led to dry land, a scene based on Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni in the Trevi Fountain.
  • Woody Allen's Celebrity (1998) is a New York-set re-working of La dolce vita which remains very faithful to the original structure and characters, with Kenneth Branagh taking up Mastroianni's role, and Goldie Hawn and Charlize Theron taking on the roles held by Anouk Aimée and Anita Ekberg, respectively. Allen also shot the movie in black and white in homage to Fellini's masterpiece.
  • Another latterday classic inspired by La dolce vita is Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), with shots of Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace in the former's car closely modelled on shots from La dolce vita.
  • In the Spanish-Argentine movie Elsa y Fred the main characters recreate the scene under the Fontana di Trevi performed originally by Ekberg and Mastroianni
  • Comediennes Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders drew from La dolce vita (among other Fellini films) for an episode of their eponymous television comedy, French & Saunders. Entitled Franco E Sandro (a faux-Italian title for the show), the episode parodied the surreal motifs in Fellini's films, including replacing the flight of the Christ statue with a statue of Madonna (A recurring figure of parody in the show), and having the episode dubbed in Italian with the actresses speaking in perfect Italian underneath (with the exception of the final scene, when Jennifer becomes bored and just decides to say anything, noting that the entire film is "going to be dubbed anyway", to which Dawn responds to just keep going "until he [Fellini] runs out of money, and then he'll have to stop it [the film]", when the film reel abruptly cuts out [for comedic effect]).
  • In the episode Marco Polo of the TV series The Sopranos, Junior Soprano falls asleep watching La dolce vita. When Bobby Baccalieri enters the room, Junior wakes up and explains that he was watching an Italian movie but couldn't understand anything even with the subtitles. He comments on the statue of Jesus hanging from the helicopter noting that "you can tell its fake."
  • In the Simon Pegg movie How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, Kirsten Dunst's character, Alison, cites it as her favourite movie. Later in the film, it is shown playing on a large, outdoor cinema screen.


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