La Dolce Vita

Movie Review #874


By Alexander Diminiano


Premiered February 3, 1960 (Italy)
Released April 19, 1961 (USA, nationwide)
Re-released July 23, 2004 (USA)
Comedy, Drama
Not Rated (contains mild sexual content)
174 minutes

I never have seen nor will I ever see something quite like “La Dolce Vita”, unless I do the inevitable, which is to watch it again. This is a foreign-language film, but certainly not a foreign film. The term “foreign” implies that it is emotionally, culturally, and conceptually inaccessible. “La Dolce Vita” presents accessibility that can be termed as universal. So many English-language films are endlessly more foreign.

“La Dolce Vita” relates to its audience. Not in a sense that it brings us back to something that happens every day in our lives, but in a sense that it reminds us of fleeting times in our lives that we always deemed unimportant; moments when we don’t take the chance to stop and smell the roses. It’s one wild, unforgettable event, composed only of the nonevents that we never thought to appreciate so much in the moment.

“La Dolce Vita” offers its characters robust dialogue, monologue, and soliloquy. The latter appears in a momentous manner, but such that it is as quotable as it is self-referential. “Rome is simply marvelous. A kind of jungle–humid and beautiful, loud at times, peaceful at others. It’s a place where you can hide behind the foliage.”

Watching “La Dolce Vita”, we are in an experience that is marvelous, junglesque, humid, beautiful. The great uproar of this movie comes loudly at times, peacefully at others. We do hide behind the foliage, not simply because we are separated from the actors by the fourth wall, but because there is a thin roman à clé veil between us and the natural people they represent.

Director Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” is his one true hybrid film, the one that divides his two distinct cinematic eras. There’s his concrete, realistic era from before 1960, and then there’s the abstract, circus-like, and sometimes dreamlike atmosphere of his films after 1960. “La Dolce Vita”, whose general release Italy was in 1960, is both realistic and abstract. Because of this, it’s difficult to say that this film belongs to a single genre. It’s rather one of its own, though it most closely associates with a comedy. Yet it’s not trying to make us laugh, nor does its humor come at its own expense. Every laugh in “La Dolce Vita” is lighthearted, momentous, and natural (not unlike the movie itself).

The script is a pièce de résistance by Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, and Tullio Finelli. The three of them incorporate facetious things we say, impulsive things we do, and memorable anecdotes we tell, into three hours that don’t really need a story to succeed so colossally. No one in “La Dolce Vita” shows emotions that exist simply to adhere to the established principles of cinema, nor does anyone do or say anything that should be passed off as normal or outright acceptable. “La Dolce Vita” develops as a continuous surprise thanks to how natural its characters appear. Writer-director Fellini crafts the movie in the mindset of the enormous cast he features. “If I were this character,” he seems to wonder, “what would I do next?” It’s very much impossible to accurately predict where the movie will continue on its route without having watched it once already. In truth, the fun comes not only from the fact that we’re incapable of predicting its path, but that the story has us much too engrossed in the moment for us to care what’ll happen next.

“La Dolce Vita” reminds us that having merely threads of story can fortify a plot as great as any. In an ongoing cold war between television and cinema, it also reminds us that “cinematic” is not an obsolete term. The black-and-white cinematography in “La Dolce Vita” is often seen in vignettes, as if the film’s glamour needed enhancing. Five different languages are spoken–Italian, English, German, Spanish, and French–and “La Dolce Vita” alternates between them all at will. The characters are defined in the moment, by what they are doing, what they are saying, how they are doing and saying these things. How they present themselves can instantaneously define them. There are no protagonists or antagonists in “La Dolce Vita”, and something quite fascinating about it is how quickly and fervently our opinions about many of the characters seem to change. This is a film about superficiality, and ironically, its characterization is so great because it never digs deep.

“La Dolce Vita” is a highly, highly entertaining film, the kind that flies right by, before you have time to realize that 174 minutes have gone by. It’s the story of a high society individual named Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni) who wants to find a tunnel out of the lifestyle that has consumed him. Fashion. Money. Glamour. Scandal. Photographers. It’s a shallow, shallow lifestyle, but a terribly addictive one that he can’t seem to ease away from. There’s little to this story, but the film tells it with an appropriate and astonishing amount of grandeur. The score, the costume design, and (of course) Anita Ekberg deliver the film at a whole new level of affluence.

I’m aware of the praise I’m hailing onto “La Dolce Vita”. I mean every word of it. If you have doubted a word of this review, I encourage you to watch the Trevi Fountain scene. It won’t require more than four minutes of your time. However, this one scene may amass your desires to watch the film in its entirety. That’s three hours to set aside, but I couldn’t understand those as three hours of disappointment if I tried.


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