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International Socialist Review, Winter 1962


Trent Hutter

La Dolce Vita


From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.1, Winter 1962, pp.28-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Several outstanding creators of motion pictures have appeared in Italy after World War II, and among these Federico Fellini, who became world-famous with La Strada, is particularly remarkable. He combines the social realism of a keenly critical mind with the poetical feeling of the artistic genius and a deep love for his people, for the less alienated, basically healthy majority as opposed to the decadent minority of the idle rich and various unsavory individuals of other classes. Fellini also is a superb craftsman of the cinema and a discoverer of talents.

La Dolce Vita has been called a “controversial” picture. But it has been enthusiastically received in Europe and America and is controversial only insofar as some Italian right-wing elements and the conservative Roman Catholic clergy have come out against it, while some less reactionary priests, for example, have underlined its moral value, its spirit of truth. On the whole, even the bourgeois critics have admitted that La Dolce Vita is one of the screen’s masterworks.

The story consists of twelve episodes. Marcello, a good-looking “third-rate journalist,” a kind of gossip columnist – and their reputation is less flattering in Italy than in the US – indiscreet and unscrupulous, moves in those circles of Roman society where he finds material for his stories. Thus we encounter various layers of a twilight world of so-called aristocrats, pleasure-seeking bourgeois, show-business personalities, prostitutes, perverts. ... Marcello, whose character is quite weak, has been corrupted in the process. Yet he is not entirely bad, not entirely without dreams of a more worthwhile existence. When he meets Steiner, an intellectual who is the center of a group of artists and friends of the arts and of a happy family life, he feels attracted by this finer and stimulating milieu and encouraged to become a serious writer, a better man.

Unfortunately, Steiner, despite his qualities, cannot be a guide. For he represents the type of bourgeois or petty bourgeois intellectual who adores beauty but has not found an ideology, a concept of the world, a philosophy of life, a goal. Intellectualism and estheticism alone cannot teach us how to live. Steiner does not see a way to make life meaningful, and he becomes desperate to the point of insanity, killing his two children and committing suicide – an exceptionally tragic variant of a not uncommon case, destroying Marcello’s hope of ascending to a higher professional and ethical level through Steiner’s friendship.

Emma, Marcello’s unhappy mistress, has had another disheartening experience at the time of Marcello’s early acquaintance with Steiner. More credulous than her unfaithful lover, she wants to believe in an alleged miracle. Two lying children in the village of Terni claim to have seen a vision of the Holy Virgin. A big crowd gathers. Panic rises during a violent storm, and one person is killed in the commotion. Emma’s longing for a “miracle” must end in disappointment. Just as mere intellectualism and estheticism will not save Marcello, the quest for an earthly manifestation of the supernatural has not provided relief for Emma.

Marcello’s basest self-degradation follows the Steiner catastrophe. The orgy in a seaside villa is the nightmare of a frenzied but doomed attempt to escape from the boredom of empty uselessness, bringing out the stupidity, vices and evil animosity of the participants and leaving a bitter taste. At dawn they shudder at the sight of a monstrous fish that has been swept on the beach, while a young girl of the people Marcello has met before in the country and who obviously likes him, holding out a great hope which he failed to understand, appears in the morning light and wants him to join her. But from where he stands no path leads to her, nor from her to him, for they are separated by an inlet ... Powerful is the twofold symbol of the ugly monster and the lovely, affectionate, innocent girl looking at the depraved and disenchanted revellers, unable to reach Marcello who now is definitely a captive of that “dolce vita,” that presumably “sweet” life of perpetual pleasures which is, in fact, a desperate chase after new and ever more joyless excitement.

Fellini’s masterwork is Italian in many of its individual figures, its background and local color and in its specific type of sensitiveness. But it would be wrong to call it “an image of contemporary Rome” or “an image of modern Italy.” It is the image of certain circles of Roman and Italian society, corresponding to the same circles in other countries, including the United States. The degenerates in La Dolce Vita have their counterparts in Park Avenue, in Hollywood – and in Suburbia. We have no reason, after seeing La Dolce Vita, to piously point a finger at Rome and to say “What a wicked city of sin!” ... What about “our” puritanical businessmen employing call girls in order to clinch a deal more easily – and deducting the “entertainment expenses” from their income taxes? And did not a columnist indicate recently that wild parties of “our” suburban bourgeoisie frequently can compare to anything in La Dolce Vita? And what about sex crimes – a problem much more alarming in the US than in Italy? The image of decadence in this film is not characteristic of Italy but generally of the big and small profiteers of our mid-century boom and those who gravitate around them.

The difference is this however: in the US, the most typically capitalist country, the bourgeoisie are more hypocritical. And in our time no fully sincere motion picture on the utter immorality, shallowness and spiritual bankruptcy of America’s upper class, its social satellites and lackeys, has been made in Hollywood. There undoubtedly exists more liberty for screenwriters and producers in Italy than in the United States ...

Fellini does not fail to remind us that outside the sultry atmosphere of the parasites’ eternal night there lives and works the immense mass of the “common” people. They are not decadent at all but as sane and vigorous as their ancestors under Julius Caesar, or during the Renaissance, or one hundred years ago when they brought about the unification and independence of their country. Italy’s quick and almost miraculous reconstruction after the desolation of World War II is due to the courage, skill and diligence of her workers, farmers, craftsmen, scientists and engineers. The idle and the would-be artists should not let us forget the countless working people, the makers and the doers and the genuine artists.

Even Fanny, the chorus girl who befriends Marcello’s father when he visits Rome, has remained in the capital’s night life a representative of the people’s kindness, good nature and ability to feel pity. Marcello’s father is a likeable, decent, provincial petty bourgeois with his set of traditional values but also a zest for life, a love of gaiety, a desire to understand and much humane tolerance. But the clearest contrast is between the idlers’ night world and the innocent girl Marcello meets in the country near the sea and who hardly interests him. Reappearing in the final episode, she embodies the counterpoint to the picture’s main theme. Hers is the willingness to lead a useful life, the generosity of the heart and the true sweetness of uncorrupted youth – not the infernally sweet stench of social putrefaction, not the “sweet life.”

Federico Fellini, a master of dramatic composition, always captivates our attention, never lacks taste and achieves the most impressive effects springing not from cheap sensationalism but from an artist’s vision. La Dolce Vita is an intelligent, adult picture, but it is not shaped by intellectualism. Its symbols are not tortured but simple and straightforward. Great art never aims at the initiated few only. And great motion pictures like Fellini’s are great art.

It would be rather foolish to talk about a picture without mentioning the actors, at least briefly. Fellini picked an admirable cast, with Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello, Anita Ekberg in the role of an American movie star, her best performance ever. Anouk Aimée as a nymphomaniac heiress, Yvonne Furneaux as Emma, Alain Cluny as Steiner, Annibale Ninchi as Marcello’s father, Magali Noel as Fanny, Lex Barker as the movie star’s lover, Nadia Gray whose striptease is the culmination of the final orgy. And the aristocrats are played by authentic members of the Roman nobility! (I believe this would be impossible in any other country ...)

After the downfall of fascism, the partisan struggle, the end of World War II, the Italian masses had become very conscious of their unsolved social problems. They still are, and Italian literature and various films express this consciousness. Despite the paralyzing policies of Stalinism and Reformism, the strength of the political labor movement has been able to prevent the weight of the Vatican and of the bourgeoisie’s Christian Democratic Party from stifling Italy’s intellectual and artistic life.

Federico Fellini’s individual gifts, a magnificent cultural heritage, a tradition of genuine liberal humanism (which even Mussolini found hard to suppress completely) and a continued surge of unprejudiced social critique – these factors have contributed to making La Dolce Vita a new classic of the screen.

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