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La dolce vita

Original movie poster by Giorgio Olivetti
Directed by Federico Fellini
Produced by Giuseppe Amato
Angelo Rizzoli
Written by Federico Fellini
Ennio Flaiano
Tullio Pinelli
Brunello Rondi
Pier Paolo Pasolini (uncredited)
Starring Marcello Mastroianni
Anita Ekberg
Anouk Aimée
Yvonne Furneaux
Magali Noël
Alain Cuny
Nadia Gray
Lex Barker
Annibale Ninchi
Walter Santesso
Jacques Sernas
Valeria Ciangottini
Music by Nino Rota
Distributed by Koch-Lorber Films
Release date(s) February 5, 1960 (Italy)
19 April, 1961 (USA)
Running time 174 min. / 180 min. (USA)
Country Italy / France
Language Italian

La dolce vita (Italian for "The Sweet Life") is a 1960 film by the critically acclaimed director Federico Fellini. The film is a story of a passive journalist's week in Rome, and his search for both happiness and love that will never come. Cited as the film that signals the split between Fellini's earlier neo-realist films and his later art films, it is considered one of the great achievements in world cinema.


Divisions of plot

Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is a journalist in Rome during the 1950s who covers tabloid news of movie stars, religious visions and the self-indulgent aristocracy.

The story depicts Marcello's life, the ease, indecision and frequency with which he gets distracted by women. It has the following distinct episodes. If the evenings of each episode were joined with the morning of the respective preceding episode together as a day, they would form seven consecutive days, which may not necessarily be the case.

Episode 1, 1st day scene

The movie starts with the memorable scene of a helicopter transporting a statue of Jesus and Marcello's news helicopter trailing it. Marcello's helicopter makes a momentary turnaround being distracted by four bikini clad women waving from the roof-top of a high-rise apartment building.

Episode 2, 1st evening scene

The next scene starts in the evening, when he incidentally meets one of his various distractions, Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), in an exclusive restaurant. Maddelena is a beautiful and extremely wealthy heiress who could afford to buy an island if, but only if, she wanted to as a means to escape from Rome. While Maddelena is tired of Rome, Marcello finds Rome suits him as a jungle in which he could easily hide. They spend the night sleeping together in the apartment of a prostitute to whom they had given a ride home.

They leave the next morning and he returns home to find Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), his fiancee, overdosed. He frantically drives her to the hospital confessing his love for his delirious and barely conscious fiancee. While he waits anxiously for Emma's regaining her consciousness in the hospital, he also tries to make a phone call to Maddelena.

Episode 3, 2nd day, 2nd evening scenes

That day he goes on assignment for the arrival of Swedish American actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) in the airport in Rome. As she alights, she is greeted by a profusion of news reporters. After which, he is distracted by two stewardesses on their way to the lobby.

As he attends a tea party/press conference for Sylvia, he calls home to ensure Emma takes her medication. In the phone call Emma exhibits her compulsively possessive nature towards Marcello. Marcello assures Emma that he is not alone with Sylvia. Meanwhile, Sylvia flamboyantly answers the barrage of questions journalists have for her.

Marcello casually recommends that Sylvia be taken on a tour to St Peter's. At the tour, a news reporter complains that Sylvia is "an elevator" as none of them could keep up with her energetic climb up the flights of stairs, which leaves Marcello alone with her at the end of the stairs at the balcony overlooking the square.

That evening Marcello dances with Sylvia, whom he finds irresistible. Sylvia triggers raucous partying while Robert (Lex Barker), her fiance, busies himself reading ignoring the whole party. Robert makes a sarcastic remark at Sylvia which provokes her to leave the party scene infuriated. Marcello takes after her. They spend the rest of the evening alone together in the alleys of Rome, wherein depicts the memorable Trevi fountain scene.

The next morning, Robert is seen sleeping in his car waiting outside Sylvia's lodging. Marcello and Sylvia arrive at the scene. After they alight from Marcello's car, Robert assaults Sylvia, orders her to go to bed and proceeds to assault Marcello. Marcello takes the assault in casual stride.

Episode 4, 3rd day, 3rd evening scenes

That day, Marcello's photographer Paparazzo accompanies him and Emma to a site to cover the story of the purported sighting of the Madonna by a couple of children. Emma indulges her compulsive maternal nature on Marcello on the way there.

While the clergy is officially skeptical, a huge crowd of devotees and reporters gathers at the site. The devoted enthusiasm of the crowd is depicted by their following the children from corner to corner in the rain as well as by their tearing down a tree, for its leaves and branches, at which the Madonna is purported to have momentarily appeared to the children. Meanwhile, Emma prays to the Madonna to be given lone possession of Marcello's heart. The gathering ends in the morning with mourning of the death of a sick child whose mother had brought him to be healed.

Episode 5, 4th evening scene

That evening, Marcello and Emma attend a gathering at Steiner's (Alain Cuny), his friend, home. While one of the women declares it better not to get married so that one does not need to choose, Marcello responds that it is better to be chosen than to choose. Emma appears enchanted with Steiner's home and children. Emma tells Marcello that one day he will have a home like Steiner's.

Marcello privately confesses envy to Steiner about his home, but Steiner confesses he is torn between the security of life and his preference for an insecure miserable life. Steiner philosophizes about the need for love in the world and fears what his children would grow up to face.

Episode 6, 5th day scene

Marcello spends the day typing at a seaside restaurant where he meets a young waitress from Umbria. He asks her if she is engaged. The waitress had been playing Perez Prado's cha-cha Patricia on the jukebox and then humming its tune.

Episode 7, 5th evening scene

That evening, Marcello finds his father visiting Rome and Marcello denies that the woman answering the phone is his fiancee but the cleaning woman. Marcello and his father visit a club where Marcello displays familiar acquaintances with the cabaret women there. His father follows one of the women home and falls sick from too much drinking. Despite Marcello's objections, his father takes a taxi in order to catch an early train home.

Episode 8, 6th evening scene

Marcello meets a friend Nico in a club and she agrees to let him accompany her to her aristocratic fiance's family mansion, where he meets Maddalena. Maddalena brings Marcello to a remote chamber of the mansion while she proceeds to a distant hallway auditorily connected to the chamber. Maddalena professes her love and devotion to Marcello and asks him to marry her, as she is being kissed and necked by another man. Marcello expresses indecision to her proposal.

Marcello chances upon another member of the family in the dark and they seduce each other.

Episode 9, pre-dawn scene

Marcello has a violent argument with Emma in which they mutually wanted a break-up but then they made up in the dawn and go home together. While in bed with Emma he receives a phone call. He rushes to the Steiners' and discovers that Steiner has killed his children and himself.

Episode 10, 7th evening scene

That evening, Marcello and his friends break into the beach house of Ricardo, another friend, to celebrate Nadia's divorce from him, wherein is the memorable scene of Nadia having been challenged to perform a striptease act to Perez Prado's cha-cha Patricia. After this, the drunken Marcello attempts to provoke the other party-goers into an orgy, though because of their inebriated states, the party simply descends into mayhem with pillow feathers being thrown about by Marcello. The night flows into the next morning and the party proceeds to the beach where they find a dead giant sting ray caught in the nets. Marcello, in his stupor, comments on how its eyes stare even in death.

The movie ends with the teenaged waitress from Umbria attempting to yell at Marcello from the other side of the cove, which appears to indicate her begging for Marcello's company. Over the crash of the waves, he cannot hear her and signals to her his inability to understand what she is yelling. She grins though, even as he turns away from her, giving up on trying to understand her; he stumbles drunkenly off after the party as they move away from the coastline.


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.[1] 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 was actually filmed in Cinecittà 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.[2] Subject to widespread censorship, the film was banned in Spain until 1975 after the death of Franco.[3]


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.[4] 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."[5]

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 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.[6] 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. Set designer Piero Gherardi created over eighty locations, including the Via Veneto, the dome of Saint Peter's with the staircase leading up to it, and various nightclubs.[7] 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.) Fellini combined constructed sets with location shots, depending on script requirements—a real location often "gave birth to the modified scene and, consequently, the newly constructed set."[8] 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.[9]

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.[citation needed]

The famous scene in the Trevi Fountain was shot over a week in winter: in March according to the BBC,[10] in late January according to Anita Ekberg.[11] Fellini claimed that 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.[12]


Seven principal episodes

The most common interpretation of the film is a mosaic linked together by its protagonist, Marcello Rubini, a journalist.[13] The seven principal episodes are as follows:

1. Marcello's evening with the heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée)
2. His long, frustrating night with the American actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) that ends in the Trevi fountain at dawn
3. His relationship with the intellectual Steiner (Alain Cuny) which is divided into three sequences: a) the encounter, b) the party, and c) the tragedy
4. The fake miracle
5. His father's visit
6. The aristocrat's party
7. An "orgy"[14] at the beach house

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.[15] 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."[16]

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."[17] 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."[18]

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."[19]

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".[20]

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".[21]

The 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".[22]

To this day, La Dolce Vita remains a classic and one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time. Prominent film critic Roger Ebert considers it Fellini’s best film[23] and lists it in his Top 10.[24]

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.[25] 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.[26][27] It was voted the 6th Greatest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly.[28]

In popular culture

The character of Paparazzo, the news photographer (played by Walter Santesso) who works with Marcello, is the origin of the word paparazzi used in many languages to describe intrusive photographers.[29] 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."[30] Gissing's character, Signor Paparazzo, is found in his travel book, By the Ionian Sea (1901).[3]

The film has influenced or else been referenced in contemporary films, television shows, and songs. In Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, Kelly's interview for LIT resembles Sylvia's interview scenes in La dolce vita. Charlotte and Bob later meet in the middle of the night and watch the famous Trevi Fountain sequence while drinking sake.[3] 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".[3] Steve Martin's 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 the opening scene of a statue of Christ being carried into the Vatican in La dolce vita. In Goodbye Lenin directed by Wolfgang Becker, a statue of Lenin is flown across Berlin, recalling the opening scene of Fellini's film. The title of Korean film A Bittersweet Life is a pun on the English translation of La dolce vita ("the sweet life") and the restaurant that the protagonist enforces for the mob is called La Dolce Vita. The two protagonists of Marcos Carnevale's Elsa y Fred recreate the scene in the Fontana di Trevi performed originally by Ekberg and Mastroianni while in Simon Pegg's How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, Alison (Kirsten Dunst) cites La dolce vita as her favourite movie. Fellini's film is later shown playing on a large, outdoor cinema screen. In the Daria episode "Fire", Daria is quoted saying "watching a dead fish wash up on shore always puts me in a good mood" in reference to recommending the film earlier in the episode.[31] Woody Allen's Celebrity (1998) is a New York-set re-working of La dolce vita that remains 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 film.

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. 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 comments on the statue of Christ hanging from the helicopter saying, "You can tell it's fake." Homer Simpson dresses for his date with Marge in Some Enchanted Evening while humming the La dolce vita theme.

Steiner's pessimistic speech about the future is quoted in an English translation in the song The Certainty of Chance by Divine Comedy. 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. Bob Dylan's Motorpsycho Nitemare references the title of the film as does Blondie's Pretty Baby from Parallel Lines.

There can be additional tributes to Fellini found in the Director's cut of Cinema Paradiso. There is a helocopter flying a statue of Jesus over the city. The main character is named Toto who grows up to be a famous film director. There is a Trevi fountain-like scene in the later part of the movie.


  1. ^ The aqueduct can be seen from the railway lines south of Termini station in Rome or by visiting the Parco degli Acquedotti.
  2. ^ Kezich, 209
  3. ^ a b c d French, Philip (February 17, 2008). "Italian cinema's sweet success". The Observer.,,2257474,00.html. Retrieved 2008-02-19. 
  4. ^ Fellini states that the fashionable ladies' sack dress proved to be his first inspiration because of what the dress could hide beneath it. Pettigrew, 57.
  5. ^ Bondanella, Peter, The Cinema of Federico Fellini, 134
  6. ^ Kezich, 198
  7. ^ Fellini, 67-83.
  8. ^ Bondanella, The Cinema of Federico Fellini, 142
  9. ^ The feature documentary, Fellini: I'm a Born Liar, shows many of these real locations used throughout the maestro's films.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Interview with Anita Ekberg by Roberta Licurgo included in 2004 DVD edition of La Dolce Vita.
  12. ^ Costantini, 47
  13. ^ Bondanella, The Cinema of Federico Fellini, 143
  14. ^ "At a villa on the coast near Fregene, Marcello presides over what passed for an "orgy" in 1959." Bondanella, 144
  15. ^ Kezich, 203
  16. ^ Bondanella, The Cinema of Federico Fellini, 145
  17. ^ Richardson, Robert, 'Waste Lands: The Breakdown of Order' in Bondanella (ed.), Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism, 111
  18. ^ Richardson, 'Waste Lands: The Breakdown of Order', 111.
  19. ^ Moravia's review first published in L'Espresso (Rome), February 14, 1960. Fava and Vigano, 104
  20. ^ Pasolini's review first published in Filmcritica XI (Rome), February 1960. In Fava and Vigano, 104-105
  21. ^ Doniol-Valcroze's review first published in France observateur (Paris), May 19, 1960. In Fava and Vigano, 104
  22. ^ Crowther’s review first published in The New York Times, April 20, 1961. In Fava and Vigano, 105
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ "La dolce vita at the New York Times". The New York Times . Retrieved 2007-02-03. 
  26. ^ "Festival de Cannes: La Dolce Vita". Retrieved 2009-02-15. 
  27. ^ "Awards for La Dolce Vita". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2007-02-03. 
  28. ^ "Entertainment Weekly's 100 Greatest Movies of All Time". Retrieved 2009-01-19. 
  29. ^ "Definition of paparazzi at Merriam-Webster". Retrieved 2008-09-19. 
  30. ^ Bondanella, The Cinema of Federico Fellini, 136
  31. ^


  • Bondanella, Peter (1978). Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Bondanella, Peter (1992). The Cinema of Federico Fellini. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Costantini, Costanzo (ed.)(1994). Fellini on Fellini. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Fava, Claudio, and Aldo Vigano (1985). The Films of Federico Fellini. New York: Citadel Press.
  • Fellini, Federico (1976). Fellini on Fellini. London: Eyre Methuen.
  • — and Damian Pettigrew (2003). I'm a Born Liar: A Fellini Lexicon. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0847831353
  • Kezich, Tullio (2006). Federico Fellini: His Life and Work. New York: Faber and Faber.

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