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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘La Dolce Vita’ (1960): Rich White People Problems


Directed by: Federico Fellini || Produced by: Giuseppe Amato, Angelo Rizzoli

Screenplay by: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, Pier Paolo Pasolini || Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noel, Alain Cuny, Nadia Gray

Music by: Nino Rota || Cinematography: Otello Martelli || Editing by: Leo Catozzo || Country: Italian || Language: Italian, English, French

Running Time: 174 minutes

Literally translated into English as “the sweet life” or “the good life,” Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is named as a sort of sarcastic satire. This film, one of renowned Italian director Fellini’s most widely lauded and arguably his most famous picture, is an examination of the “New Rome” forged on the foundations of the country’s economic miracle of the 1950s. The narrative concerns a disillusioned journalist played by Fellini favorite, Marcello Mastroianni, who covers the lives, lifestyles, and self-indulgent habits of wealthy Italian aristocrats, movie stars, and religious celebrities for his tabloid magazine. Through his work, Mastroianni gets to sample “the sweet life” of the rich and famous. He tastes what life is like for those who have it all: Money, fame, stable families, plenty of friends, and endless partying. During his journey though, Marcello discovers these lifestyles to be hallow and unfulfilling. He comes to the conclusion that either (A) he is just unsuited for the good life of the rich and famous, or that (B) the allure of the good life is in fact an illusion, a well concealed lie that hides the honest truth of just how empty it is.

The film’s long length and episodic nature may turn off more casual viewers, as it sort of did me. La Dolce Vita (LDV) is one of those films that doesn’t quite impress until after the film’s over and you give its themes and narrative concepts more time to sink in. The way the film is constructed makes it hard to trace a definitive arc for Marcello’s protagonist, though he does indeed have one despite the fact that the story’s events may be played out of sequence. For its murkiness and poor pacing, I mark LDV down a couple points, but the film is still a well made treatise on the possible illusion of fame, money, and glamour, as well as our misguided attraction to it. Marcello is not a terribly interesting main character, but he’s perfectly relatable and has a decent enough sense of humor to make an effective guide through this maze of “lights, camera, action!”

Top: Marcelo Mastroianni (left) attempts to romance Swedish actress Anita Ekberg (right). Bottom: Mastroianni engages in further drunken antics later in the film. The whole movie is like this, mind you.

LDV consists of seven dawn, day, and night sequences intercut with an “intermission” of sorts and a short epilogue. During each of these 24-hour sequences, Marcello embarks on fruitless quests to find romance, confidence, and general fulfilling stability in his life. Oftentimes his goals are merely infatuated sexual attractions for women who are way out of his league, contrasted with his horribly depressing and dysfunctional relationship with his fiancee. Other times Marcello evokes envy for the comfortable security and stability of a normal, wealthier family with loving kids and plenty of friends. And then there are instances of religious symbolism and the corrupting influence of instantaneous, superstitious celebrity that leaves our protagonist haunted and doubtful about the fleeting nature of the layman’s affections.

A running theme in LDV is excess — the excess of sexual desire, the excess of celebrity worship, the excess of money and wealth, and even the excess of serenity that comes from an outwardly stable family. Marcello is dismayed by the end results of all his nights chasing movie stars, rich aristocrats, and the like, and by the end of the whole experience we begin to feel as if he has finally made the connection that there can be too much of a good thing. This narrative framework is complimented by a touching intermezzo and epilogue that ties together the film’s themes and Marcello’s aspirations for a more meaningful life. In the end, it’s not a perfect cinematic experience given the immensely slow pace of it all, but the movie’s existential themes are so multi-layered that it’s hard to stop thinking and rethinking about what you just saw.

La Dolce Vita is another one of the key European new waves of the 1950s-60s that, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), demands to be seen purely on its influence alone. Like many of the continent’s New Wave films, I’m not as enraptured by it as most other fans and critics seem to be, yet I wholeheartedly admit to its importance within the history of the medium. It’s an extraordinarily interesting take on people’s fascination with “the good life,” and it frames its analysis in the historical and religious context of bustling, transforming Italian landscape that only adds to the movie’s allure.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Fellini’s symbolism and thematic analysis are engrossing, made ever more nuanced by subtle character growth wrapped within a complex narrative structure.

However… La Dolce Vita is long, drawn out, and not without its boring parts. A couple day/night sequences could have been removed and probably not made a difference to the story.


? Look! The Virgin Mary’s over there, now!

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