Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita is perhaps most remembered for the image of beautiful blonde actress Anita Ekberg standing in a fountain in Rome. It is an iconic image; recognizable even to those who have not seen the film. Ekberg plays an American actress named Sylvia, but she is only a minor character in the film, just one of many characters who pass through the story. In fact, La Dolce Vita is a very episodic film with few recurring characters. The one thread that ties it all together is the character of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a photojournalist who lives the "sweet life" in Rome - driving expensive cars, eating at cafes and cavorting with movie stars. The movie exposes the shallowness of such a life, and is particularly relevant in this age of Paris Hiltons and Lindsday Lohans. But to look at La Dolce Vita as merely a message movie is to ignore the most compelling reason to see it - it is a fascinating character study, featuring beautiful cinematography and directed by a top-class filmmaker at the height of his power.
It is difficult to summarize the "plot" of La Dolce Vita because it is by no means a traditionally structured narrative. The film is mainly a string of disconnected sequences, each representing one night in Marcello's life. There are a few recurring characters, though - Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) is Marcello's estranged and suicidal girlfriend. Steiner (Alain Cuny) is one of Marcello's idols, a seemingly happy intellectual with a wife and kids. Maddalena is a rich heiress who Marcello encounters at the beginning and end of the film.
The film's structure is at times frustrating. Upon first viewing, some sequences seem overlong, and the film lacks a cohesive flow. Yet that is part of what La Dolce Vita so brilliant. Its disjointed structure illustrates the empty life of Marcello. He spends his nights at sumptuous parties, drinking with beautiful women, but never finds a stable relationship or any real meaning in his life. The same holds true for the people Marcello surrounds himself with.
In one telling sequence, Marcello's father comes to Rome and visits his son. Marcello expresses a clear desire to connect with his father, but at dinner his father is distracted by an alluring chorus girl. They go home together, but at dawn his father becomes sick and eventually must leave on an early train. The scene is revealing because it shows how Marcello's character flaws go back to his father, but also that Marcello is looking for a real relationship with his father. Mastroianni perfectly exudes a lonely yearning in that scene.
Another central figure in the story is Steiner, who in many ways represents what Marcello would like to be. Steiner is a serious writer, a family man, and fancies himself an intellectual. But he is not as happy as it would appear, which is made tragically clear later in the film. The character of Steiner, and indeed all of the supporting characters, are wonderfully sketched by Fellini, the screenwriters, and a gifted cast.
Another one of the the film's assets is its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. Many of the images in the film are extremely memorable. The fountain scene is the most obvious example, but there are others. A Christ statue being towed over Rome by a helicopter. The deserted streets of Rome at night. Marcello's father, blankly staring out of an apartment window. And the perfect final few shots of the film, which I will not reveal here.
La Dolce Vita is also fascinating for its depiction of the paparazzi. In fact, the word "paparazzi" comes from the film's character of Paparazzo, who is one of the many photojournalists who swarm around the lives of the main characters. The paparazzi are ever-present in the movie, and they have no sense of decency. When Marcello gets into a fight with Sylvia's boyfriend, they do not rush to help their friend but rather rotate around the fight to get the best shot. When a woman is informed of a family tragedy, dozens of them crowd around her to capture her reaction. The film is almost scarily accurate in this depiction, especially since it holds true today.
La Dolce Vita is a long and at times frustrating film - its unconventional structure may try the patience of some viewers. But that is really the only criticism I can give it. The film is positively overflowing with ideas, and its influence on cinema is remarkable. Yet aside from any historical importance, La Dolce Vita is a wonderful film in its own right. The story is heartbreaking, the cast impeccable, and the cinematography beautiful. For adventurous filmgoers, La Dolce Vita will provide food for thought for years to come.