Roger Ebert / January 5, 1997
I have heard theories that Federico
Fellini's "La Dolce Vita'' catalogs the seven deadly
sins, takes place on the seven hills of Rome, and involves seven
nights and seven dawns, but I have never looked into them, because
that would reduce the movie to a crossword puzzle. I prefer it
as an allegory, a cautionary tale with a man without a center.
Fellini shot the movie in 1959 on the Via Veneto,
the Roman street of nightclubs, sidewalk cafes and the parade of
the night. His hero is a gossip columnist, Marcello, who chronicles "the
sweet life'' of fading aristocrats, second-rate movie stars, aging
playboys and women of commerce. The role was played by Marcello
Mastroianni, and now that his life has ended we can see that
it was his most representative. The two Marcellos -- character
and actor -- flowed together into a handsome, weary, desperate
man, who dreams of someday doing something good, but is trapped
in a life of empty nights and lonely dawns.
The movie leaps from one visual extravaganza to
another, following Marcello as he chases down stories and women.
He has a suicidal fiancee (Magali
Noel) at home. In a nightclub, he picks up a promiscuous society
Aimee), and together they visit the basement lair of a prostitute.
The episode ends not in decadence but in sleep; we can never be
sure that Marcello has had sex with anyone.
Another dawn. And we begin to understand the film's structure:
A series of nights and dawns, descents and ascents. Marcello goes
down into subterranean nightclubs, hospital parking lots, the hooker's
hovel and an ancient crypt. And he ascends St. Peter's dome, climbs
to a choir loft, and to the high-rise apartment of Steiner (Alain
Cuny), the intellectual who is his hero. He will even fly over
The famous opening scene, as a statue of
Christ is carried above Rome by a helicopter, is matched with
the close, in which fisherman on the beach find a sea monster
in their nets. Two Christ symbols: the statue "beautiful'' but false, the fish "ugly''
but real. During both scenes there are failures of communication.
The helicopter circles as Marcello tries to get the phone numbers
of three sunbathing beauties. At the end, across a beach, he
sees the shy girl he met one day when he went to the country
in search of peace to write his novel. She makes typing motions
to remind him, but he does not remember, shrugs, and turns away.
If the opening and closing scenes are symmetrical, so are many
others, matching the sacred and profane and casting doubts on both.
An early sequence finds Marcello covering the arrival in Rome of
an improbably buxom movie star (Anita
Ekberg), and consumed with desire. He follows her to the top
of St. Peters, into the bowels of a nightclub, and into the Roman
night, where wild dogs howl and she howls back. His pursuit ends
at dawn when she wades into the Trevi Fountain and he wades after
her, idealizing her into all women, into The Woman; she remains
forever just out of reach.
This sequence can be paired with a later one where children report
a vision of the Virgin. Marcello races to the site, which is surrounded
by TV cameras and a crowd of the devout. Again, we have an idealized
woman and the hope that she can solve every problem. But the children
lead the faithful on a chase, just as
Ekberg led Marcello around Rome. They see the Virgin here, and
then there, as the lame and the blind hobble after them and their
grandfather cadges for tips. Once again everything collapses in
an exhausted dawn.
The central episodes in "La Dolce Vita''
involve Steiner, who represents all that Marcello envies. Steiner
lives in an apartment filled with art. He presides over a salon
of poets, folk singers, intellectuals. He has a beautiful wife
and two perfect children. When Marcello sees him entering a church,
they ascend to the organ loft and Steiner plays Bach while urging
Marcello to have more faith in himself, and finish that book.
Then follows the night of Steiner's party, and the moment (more
or less the exact center of the film) where Marcello takes his
typewriter to a country trattoria and tries to write. Then comes
the terrible second Steiner scene, when Marcello discovers that
Steiner's serenity was made from a tissue of lies.
To mention these scenes is to be reminded of how many other great
moments this rich film contains. The echo chamber. The Mass at
dawn. The final desperate orgy. And of course the touching sequence
with Marcello's father (Annibale Ninchi), a traveling salesman
who joins Marcello on a tour of the night. In a club they see a
sad-faced clown (Poidor) lead a lonely balloon out of the room
with his trumpet. And Marcello's father, filled with the courage
of champagne, grows bold with a young woman who owes Marcello a
favor -- only to fall ill and leave, gray and ashen, again at dawn.
The movie is made with boundless energy.
Fellini stood here at the dividing point between the neorealism
of his earlier films (like "La Strada'') and the carnival visuals of his extravagant
later ones ("Juliet of the Spirits,'' "Amarcord''). His
autobiographical "8 1/2,'' made three years after "La
Dolce Vita,'' is a companion-piece, but more knowing: There the
hero is already a filmmaker, but here he is a young newspaperman
on the make.
The music by Nino Rota is of a perfect piece
with the material. It is sometimes quasi-liturgical, sometimes
jazz, sometimes rock; lurking beneath is the irreverence of tuba
and accordions, and snatches of pop songs ("Stormy Weather'' and even "Jingle
Bells''). The characters are forever in motion, and Rota gives
them music for their processions and parades.
The casting is all typecasting. Anita
Ekberg might not have been much of an actress, but she was
the only person who could play herself. Lex
Barker, a onetime movie Tarzan, was droll as her alcoholic
Cuny's severe self-confidence as Steiner is convincing, which
is why his end is a shock. And remember Anouk
Aimee, her dark glasses concealing a black eye; the practical,
commonsensical Adriana Moneta as the streetwalker; Alan Dijon
as the satanic ringleader at the nightclub; and always Mastroianni,
his eyes squinting against a headache or a deeper ache of the
soul. He was always a passive actor, and here that quality is
needed: Seeking happiness but unable to take the steps to find
it, he spends his nights in endless aimless searching, trying
to please everyone, the juggler with more balls than skills.
Movies do not change, but their viewers
do. When I saw "La
Dolce Vita'' in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom "the sweet
life'' represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European
glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I
saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello's
world; Chicago's North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3
a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello's
When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but
I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as
a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for
happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when
I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado,
Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and
then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw
the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini
and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal.
There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary
to find that out for yourself.