For most of the 1950s, Federico Fellini experienced great success with personal yet stylized films that placed him as one of the major filmmakers in Italian neorealist cinema of post-WWII Europe. Films like I Vitelloni, La Strada and Nights of Cabiria were all extremely successful, both in Italy and abroad. But as Fellini approached a new decade in his career, something began to change in him and his filmmaking. He started to move away from his neorealist roots and move more into the realm of fantasy and the baroque. Whilst it would still take a few years for Fellini to fully embrace the fantasy and baroque style that would come to define his legacy, traces of things to come can be found in Fellini’s first major leap towards cinematic immortality through his seventh feature length film, La Dolce Vita, becoming one of the most iconic and memorable films in all of cinema.
The inspiration reportedly came from numerous different incidents that occurred in Italy during the 1950s. One key factor was the Hollywood on the Tiber phenomenon of the period (when Hollywood films would shoot in Italy due to cheap studio labor), in which numerous international movie stars where constantly followed by photographers all over Rome. Another inspiration came from a scandal caused by a Turkish dancer performing a striptease at a nightclub. Another reported inspiration came from the notorious Wilma Montesi murder of 1953, in which her lifeless body drifted ashore on a beach in Rome, leading to an investigation that exposed the sexual and moral decadence of Roman high society at the time. Crucially however, the true main inspiration for the film came from women’s sack dresses. As co-writer and frequent Fellini collaborator Brunello Rondi explained, “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.” And that leads into what the film is essentially about: the search for meaning and happiness in life through a decadent, materialistic and shallow lifestyle.
And Fellini goes about depicting this not through neorealism but through symbolism that is spread throughout the various “episodes” that make up the films three-hour running time. In the very beginning of the film, we see a statue of Jesus being flown over Rome by our main character Marcello (superbly acted by Marcello Mastroianni), as if to suggest that we mere mortals are morally superior to God and don’t need anyone to look after us, hence leaving us to indulge in all sorts of hedonistic pleasures, much like when the Israelites constructed the Golden Calf as they waited for Moses return from Sinai. But God punished the Israelites, and in a sense, so are the characters in La Dolce Vita. Marcello especially, is constantly searching for true love and a happy existence, but is constantly lured back to the materialism of wealth and fame and becomes doomed to live a life of unhappiness.
This constant search for happiness through materialistic wealth affects his relationship to everybody, especially the women in his life. Despite having a fiancée who loves him and wants to take care of him in the character of Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), Marcello rejects her “maternal love” and instead opts for his more superficial love for women such as the heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) and the Swedish movie star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg). But it’s arguable if he truly is in love with these women, or more in love with what they symbolize, which is wealth, love and happiness. It’s definitely true in the case of Sylvia, as he says to her at a party: “You are everything… everything! You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You are mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, earth, home.” He’s in love with the image of Sylvia, but Sylvia herself doesn’t to desire Marcello the same way, and she is shown to be unhappy in her marriage to her husband Robert (which leads to a very subtle fourth-wall break). When he finally seems to profess what appears to be genuine love for someone in the film (to Maddalena) and she professes these feelings back, she rejects him and begins to kiss another man and losing interest in Marcello, showing that she is just as superficial as Marcello in their romantic relationships.
It should be noted that some of these female characters are some of the most beautiful and sensual female characters that I have ever laid my eyes on, and I suspect that was a deliberate move on Fellini’s part to further underscore the vapid emptiness and how easily one can be attracted to the lifestyle (or it could be because he wanted to surround himself with beautiful women, I don’t think that’s beyond the realm of plausible).
The title La Dolce Vita literally means “the sweet life” or “the good life”, and whilst this is obviously meant in an ironic sentiment, and whilst Fellini is obviously critical of the lifestyle depicted in the film, I don’t think that’s the only thing the film is trying to say. What I think Fellini tries to say in this film (and indeed his whole filmography for that matter), is that in the end life truly is beautiful, warts and all. Yes, we will all suffer setbacks and there may be moments when we question our own choices or the state of the world, but we’re all alive, and, maybe that’s all it takes to be truly happy, and life is something worth living. So in that sense, La Dolce Vita might be one of the most accurate cinematic depictions of everything that life is; fleeting, frustrating, beautiful, contradictory and ultimately sweet. To quote the man himself: “There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life”.