La Dolce Vita Review
La Dolce Vita (‘The Sweet Life’), Fellini’s dark, romantic look at the swinging party lifestyle of Rome’s rich and famous, is the director’s most celebrated film for a number of reasons. Its depiction of a decadent civilisation in decline spared no-one – from the poor and pious to the rich and famous, all are subjected to Fellini’s questioning gaze and none emerge terribly well from the examination. The film was pronounced as ‘unsuitable for all’ by the Catholic Church, yet it went on to win at Cannes in 1960. The film’s Trevi Fountain scene is one of the greatest iconic moments in cinema history and the film’s title has now become a by-word for the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Perhaps the most significant contribution of the film is its coining of the term Paparazzi, taken from the name of the tenacious photo-journalist reporter, Pararazzo, side-kick of our protagonist Marcello, who guides us through the dark underside of swinging post-war Rome.
Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is a journalist, a talented writer who squanders his talent writing trashy celebrity gossip columns for the papers. His profession, as well as his charming good-looks, gives him easy access to the rich and the beautiful and he takes full advantage of the opportunities this offers, escorting glamorous American movie stars like Sylvia Rankin (Anita Ekberg) around the city’s fabulous exotic night-clubs, visiting the homes of the artistocracy, and consorting with the intellectual and the cultural elite of the city. Marcello is in thrall to the good-life, the dolce vita – seduced by the glamour, drifting along, picking up whatever falls his way. The continuous parade of vain, insecure celebrities provides countless opportunities for seduction, but the easy sexual conquests, the endless parties and wild orgies become increasingly empty and meaningless. La Dolce Vita is episodic in nature, covering seven days of excess and abandon, each morning-after increasingly more sober than the last.
In a way, La Dolce Vita is a summation of Fellini’s work to date, drawing on elements of religion, superstition, celebrity, the entertainment industry, family and social life from his early films such as La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, I Vitelloni and The White Sheik. It would also be the last film where the director would make use the traditional realist narrative form, his subsequent films becoming more abstract, dreamlike, spontaneous, impressionistic and introspective. La Dolce Vita marks a dividing line between his earlier films reaching a peak as far as he could take realism and social observation, turning to examine similar themes and subjects from a more personal angle in later films like Fellini's Roma, Juliet of the Spirits, Amarcord and Fellini's Casanova. Here in La Dolce Vita Fellini dredges everything up onto the screen in a way that had never been shown before, showing a glamorous and decadent civilisation at its limit and decaying at the edges – over-indulging on alcohol, drugs, prostitution, sex, marital infidelity, domestic violence and turning to intellectual dilettanteism, religion and spiritualism in a desperate attempt to cover over the rot of the corruption that is slowly eating its way into their souls.
Although the film’s title suggests an ironic look at the lives of the decadent, the rich and the famous, the film is actually wider in its scope. Not only does the film examine the fragile shell of sex, drugs and alcohol that covers over so many faults and insecurities of the celebrity lifestyle, it also looks at other supposedly respectable aspects of Roman and by extension Italian society, deriding attitudes towards marriage and religion. Marital infidelity is not only accepted, it is expected – even Marcello’s father, visiting Rome for the day enjoys the good-times with a dancer from a nightclub. Marcello himself is familiar with the prostitutes of the city, but in each case, the apparent surface glamour only covers the harsh reality underneath. Marcello’s father tells of a beautiful dancer with long, beautiful legs he once picked up who turned out to be a man, while Marcello’s prostitutes live in the poorest slums of the city in flooded apartments. Things are not as glamorous as they appear on the surface, nor, as it becomes apparent, do Marcello’s intellectual friends and artists have any answers to the malaise that affects them all.
Religion also comes in for perhaps the severest criticism, being shown as a misleading palliative to the poor that thinly papers over the deep crevasses that make up the misery of their lives, providing nothing but false hope and misdirection. The ‘Children of the Madonna’ sequence in La Dolce Vita is even more disturbing than the ‘Divine Love’ pilgrimage sequence in Le Notte Di Cabiria, exposing the showbiz associations of Catholicism – using TV and radio reports to broadcast a sighting of the Madonna as if it were a sports event – and depicting a worship of celebrity that is even more corrupting and just as meaningless as movie-star idolism.
There is however more a sense of irony than bitterness or cynicism in La Dolce Vita, as Fellini was just as fascinated by religion, by spiritualism, by homosexuality, by intellectuals, fame and celebrity as anyone, which is perhaps why Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s on-screen incarnation of himself, enters into the life and drifts along on its tail. It’s for this reason that La Dolce Vita is as strong a film now as it was when it was made – the fact that it is not a diatribe, yet is not impartial and objective either. La Dolce Vita is a genuine struggle by an artist to come to terms with elements in subjects that fascinate and attract, yet trouble him in their flaws and contradictions. There are many sequences in La Dolce Vita that remain obscure, their meaning not quite clear, the director’s position on them undecided. The viewer, like Marcello and like Fellini, will find themselves endlessly fascinated by the seductive beauty and corrupting charm of La Dolce Vita.
The Region 2 release of La Dolce Vita is released in the UK by Nouveaux Pictures. It uses the same resorted print that was used on the Italian Medusa edition for their Cinema Forever collection. Unlike the previous UK R2 edition from Momentum, this release presents the film in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Comparisons to both these editions are examined below.
The restored negative, presenting the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio looks marvellous, presenting a striking looking film in close to its original glory. The restoration has cleaned-up the print considerably, there being scarcely a mark or dustspot to be seen and an almost complete absence of grain. There are however some disappointing flaws in this edition. While there is a good range of greyscale tones in some scenes, the overall image is too dull, blacks looking a touch on the light side, flattened-out with no great shadow detail. A touch of brightness flare can sometimes be seen at the bottom of the frame. The image is also not quite sharp enough – it’s clear and focussed, but a touch on the soft side. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is preserved, but matted slightly to the left and right, losing minor detail at the edge of the frame. If your TV has any kind of overscan, this will not be noticeable. The transfer on the UK Nouveaux Pictures however looks quite impressive for the main part and these minor flaws are less evident in the second half of the film. It is only disappointing in comparison to the Italian Medusa edition which contains none of these flaws with lighting, sharpness or aspect ratio.
Some digital artefacts can also be detected occasionally, but not to any distracting level. There is slight edge-enhancement, but it is rarely noticeable, some slightly jagged rather than smooth edges and some moiré shimmer. These flaws are also evident, to a lesser extent on the Italian DVD, so are possibly inherent in the digital restoration process. There is one jarring moment of digital noise around the 24-minute mark when Anita Ekberg is descending from her plane for the second time. This flaw does not appear in the Italian edition.
Some screen captures are included below to give some idea of the differences between the UK Nouveaux Pictures edition (above) and the Italian Medusa edition (below). The Nouveaux Pictures luminosity is actually not quite as dull as it appears in the screen captures, but is certainly flatter than the Italian edition.
The screen captures below show the aspect ratio differences between the UK Nouveaux Pictures edition (above) and the Italian Medusa edition (middle) and the 1.85:1 ratio UK Momentum edition (bottom).
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack channels the original mono soundtrack through the front speakers, creating a strong central soundscape that is completely faithful to the original soundtrack, retaining the limitations inherent within it. Dialogue remains clear throughout and Nino Rota’s wonderful and justly famous score comes across warmly and effectively.
Subtitles are clear and strong, reading well. Not every line is translated, generally skipping over incidental and background dialogue – and not every line is completely accurately translated but it mostly captures the tone of the film well. The subtitles are identical to those used on the Italian edition.
Interview with Anita Ekberg (18:31)
The only extra feature on the UK DVD, a recent new interview with Ekberg nevertheless provides some interesting information. Ekberg relates how the famous Pierluigi photos of the Swedish model in the Trevi Fountain were shot before the film was conceived, came to Fellini's attention and inspired the scene in the film. Ekberg also talks about meeting and working with Fellini, shooting the famous scene and her career in movies.
The Italian Medusa 2-DVD edition has the feature on one disc and a second disc containing a short introduction to the film by Maurizio Porro, some archive newsreel clips of the film’s premiere and an interview with Federico Fellini. The interview is superb, interviewer Enzo Biagi appearing to constantly interrupt Fellini in full-flow with non-sequitur questions, but the technique actually draws out fabulous stories and anecdotes from an always fascinating raconteur. Unfortunately, while the Italian Medusa edition includes English subtitles for the feature there are none on the extra features disc.
A summation of all of Fellini’s work up to that point, La Dolce Vita is a fascinating and seductive exploration below the surface of the glamorous façade of society’s respectable elite. Its pouring onto the screen of all the director’s obsessions left Fellini with a creative void that necessitated a new way of working – a challenge that he more than met with the daring and astonishing 8½ (1963). Between them, the two films mark the twin peaks of Fellini’s range and artistry and remain two of the most important and influential works of modern cinema.
Nouveaux Pictures UK Region 2 DVD release certainly makes up for the harm caused by the earlier appalling Momentum release and is generally a good enough transfer, but it falls short of the beautiful Italian edition.