Federico Fellini, one of the cinema’s greatest artists, began his career as a cartoonist, and then enrolled in the University of Rome Law School in 1938 in order to avoid being drafted into Mussolini’s fascist army. However, Fellini never actually took any classes, and instead spent his time as a court reporter, where he met the actor Aldo Fabrizi, who hired Fellini at a nominal salary as an assistant. By the early 1940s, Fellini was writing scripts for Italian radio programs, and developed an interest in film as a result of his work in the relatively new medium.
After the fall of Mussolini, Fellini and some friends opened up a storefront business that he christened “The Funny Face Shop”, where, functioning as a sidewalk sketch artist, he drew caricatures of American soldiers. A chance meeting with Roberto Rossellini developed into a friendship, and Rossellini asked Fellini to help with the script for the film that became Roma, città aperta (Open City, 1945). The success of the film encouraged Fellini to delve further into the cinema. He wrote several more scripts for Rossellini, including the scenario for the groundbreaking “Il Miracolo” (“The Miracle”, one of two segments in L’amore, 1948), in which Fellini also had a major role as an actor.
Fellini then served as an assistant director and/or scenarist for the young Italian directors Pietro Germi and Alberto Lattuada, both of whom had attended the Italian national film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. In 1950, Fellini made his first film as a director, Luci del varietà (Variety Lights, co-directed with Lattuada), but this modest comedy, about a vaudeville troupe, failed at the box office. His second film, now as solo director, was Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik, 1952), a parody of the popular fumetti comic books then popular in Italy, which used captioned photos rather than drawings to tell their story.
This film, too, failed to meet with public favour, but Fellini finally clicked with his next effort, the semi-autobiographical film I vitelloni (1953), about a group of young loafers who hang about in a small Italian town waiting aimlessly for something to happen in their lives; the film would much later be remade by George Lucas as American Graffiti (1973), set in a small California town. La strada (The Road, 1954) was an even bigger success, starring Fellini’s immensely talented wife Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina, a sort of “holy fool” who tours the Italian countryside as an assistant to the strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn). Alternately heartbreaking and comic, this deeply perceptive film about the vagabond carnival life struck a chord with audiences worldwide, and won an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.
Fellini’s career was now in high gear, and for the rest of the 1950s, he created a series of unforgettable films, including Il bidone (The Swindle, 1955), starring American actor Broderick Crawford as Augusto, a fast-talking con man who is not above donning a priest’s collar to cheat his poverty-stricken victims, and Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957), starring Masina as an eternally optimistic prostitute who perseveres in her faith in mankind, no matter how shabbily the fates, and her various clients, may treat her. The film won Fellini another Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
But all of this was merely the prelude to Fellini’s most ambitious project, in which he hoped to paint a broad canvas of the collapse of modern society and the rise of celebrity culture, La dolce vita (literally “The Sweet Life”, 1960), a biting condemnation of throwaway “pop” culture and the cult of celebrityhood, which also coined the term paparazzi for tabloid photographers. Marcello Mastroianni, in the role that made him an international celebrity, plays Marcello Rubini, a scandal reporter for a sleazy Rome newspaper. The film came about partially as a result of Fellini’s new celebrity status; forsaking his usual haunts, the director spent much time in the cafés of the Via Veneto, a gathering place for the rich and famous of the era. Working throughout 1958 with the screenwriters Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Faliano, and Brunello Rondi, Fellini used sections of an earlier, abandoned screenplay, “Molado in città”, but now expanded his new screenplay to encompass all of Italian pop society (1).
Famously, the film’s initial producer, Dino De Laurentiis was unhappy with the screenplay, finding it too gloomy and downbeat; he also wanted Fellini to pass over Mastroianni for the lead, and give the role to Paul Newman. This was not entirely out of line, for Fellini himself was set on casting Maurice Chevalier (!) as Marcello’s aging, ailing father; Henry Fonda as the intellectual Steiner, Marcello’s best friend; as well as Greer Garson, Luise Rainer, Peter Ustinov and Barbara Stanwyck in supporting roles (2). This would have resulted in a very different film indeed, but while he was willing to compromise on other matters, Fellini refused to budge on Mastroianni, and after strenuous negotiations, De Laurentiis backed out of the project.
But sensing the commercial possibilities of the project, redolent of sin and scandal, three other producers soon stepped up to fill the void, which for a time complicated matters, as Fellini soon found himself involved with all three simultaneously. At length, he made a deal with Guiseppe Amato and Angelo Rizzoli, as the “Riama” company, signing the contract for the film on 28 October 1958. The fiery Amato caused numerous scenes during the shooting of the film, but in Rizzoli, Fellini at last found a producer who respected and admired both his work, and his shooting methods. “Rizzoli is the ideal producer”, Fellini later remarked; “without him, I could never have made La dolce vita” (3).
Shooting began on 16 March 1959, with Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg (as Sylvia, the American sex siren), starting with the scene in which Marcello chases Sylvia up the steps inside St Peter’s Dome; in fact a set which had been constructed to match the original location. Also on the set was Walter Santesso, a young documentary filmmaker and actor, in the role of Paparazzo, Marcello’s sidekick, a stop-at-nothing photographer who specialises in catching stars in compromising situations. Immediately after this, Fellini shot the sequences documenting Sylvia’s triumphal arrival at the Rome airport, and then the famous scene at the fountains of Trevi (4).
The scenes of the Via Veneto – reconstructed within the confines of the Cinecittà studios for the film – went smoothly, once Fellini realised that shooting on the actual location was impossible because of the notoriety the film itself was attracting, even during production; ironically, the daily power struggles to complete La dolce vita were now hot gossip items for the Rome dailies. Luise Rainer, for example, had been written into the sprawling script as “Dolores, an old and lonely nymphomaniac who becomes infatuated with Marcello”, but after reading the script, Rainer rejected her role as “sordid and hateful” (5).
Rainer then came to Rome to argue the case in person, and attempted to soften her role into a sort of beneficent muse who helps Marcello write the book he’s always wanted to complete, but has been unable to. There was also talk of a sex scene between the character of Dolores and Marcello that Rainer objected to, but there are varying accounts of this, and the real truth may never be known (6). At length, annoyed with Rainer’s interference, Fellini decided to jettison both Rainer and the character of Dolores entirely, and the resulting tumult was covered extensively in the press (7).
Yet shooting pressed on, and as the film gathered speed, La dolce vita seemed to explore every aspect of modern Italian society; the supposed glamour of stardom revealed as a mere scramble for publicity at any cost; the non stop party life that is shown as both empty and rotten; and the intellectual “haven” offered by Steiner (Alain Cuny) and his family that is seen as an inadequate refuge from the harsh realities of 20th century pop culture. Always on top of the latest trends, Fellini spotted a young “scenester”, Nico (billed as “Nico Otzak” in the film’s credits, but born Christa Päffgen), who would soon go on to star in Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1966), and put her in a small role as a blond, hedonistic pleasure seeker caught up in the “sweet life”.
Mixed in with all of this is the backdrop of the endless quest for sensational headlines, where anything and everything that can make “good copy” is grist for the mill. When Sylvia’s drunken husband, Robert (Tarzan actor Lex Barker), shows up and almost spoils Sylvia’s debut with the Rome press, and is later involved in a fight with Marcello, Paparazzo is there to take pictures, along with photographers from the competing tabloids, to splash across the front page. Later, two young girls, clearly coached by their fame-seeking relatives, claim to have been visited by the Virgin Mary; most of the press in attendance know that the entire episode is a fraud, but they play it up as news because they know their audience will be intrigued. When the “visitation” turns into a full-scale riot, in the middle of a torrential downpour, so much the better; it makes for more spectacular visuals.
Throughout the film, Marcello spends his nights searching for gossip and scandal, going to endless, meaningless parties, hanging out on the Via Veneto in Rome, and constantly looking for action. He fights endlessly with his gullible, clinging fiancée, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), who attempts suicide when Marcello neglects her. Seeking respite from Emma’s persistent demands for a typical, bourgeois life, Marcello drifts into a relationship with Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), a cynical member of the jet set who lives only for the pleasure of the moment. None of this brings Marcello any happiness, and his job is equally repellent; exploiting the misery and foibles of the celebrity set he runs with.
When Marcello’s ailing father (Annibale Ninchi) from the provinces unexpectedly shows up for a night on the town, Marcello desperately tries to reconnect with him, but to no avail; his father suffers a minor heart attack, and returns home, realising that no matter how much he might wish to, he can’t recapture his own, hedonistic youth. As the film progresses, Marcello sinks deeper into the decadence of Rome’s nightlife, although even his professional rivals tell him to quit writing for the “scandal sheets” and work on some project worthy of his undeniable talents. Marcello’s only true friend, Steiner, is an intellectual with a wife and two children who has nightly literary “salons” at his high-rise apartment, and also urges Marcello to quit wasting his life.
But when Steiner suddenly and inexplicably commits suicide, after killing his two infant children, Marcello feels that there is no way out. The life of throwaway pop celebrity is all he knows; it has consumed him, spat him out, left him bereft of hope and stripped of whatever talent he might once have possessed. The film’s final sequence finds Marcello, drunk and unshaven, hanging out with a worthless group of “party people” at a shabby, improvised orgy, intent on momentary pleasure and nothing more. Marcello has now given up writing even for the gossip magazines; he has been reduced to being a publicist for hire, who dispenses instant, fraudulent celebrity – for a price.
La dolce vita finished shooting on 27 August 1959, and when the first cut was completed – at 18,000 ft. in 35mm – the film was more than three-and-a-half hours long. Working with the film’s editor, Leo Cattozzo, with the sympathetic help of Angelo Rizzoli, and against the interference of Giuseppe Amato, who now wanted to cut the more controversial scenes for fear of causing offence (a bit late for that, it would seem), Fellini brought the film down to 17,000 ft., and then trimmed an additional 200 ft. more to bring the film to its final release time of 174 minutes; oddly enough, the US version was slightly longer, at a full 180 minutes, and contained some sequences deleted in the Italian version (8).
Superbly photographed in black-and-white CinemaScope (a European variation called Totalscope), that most ’60s of all cinematic formats, by the gifted Otello Martelli, and with a haunting music score by Fellini’s frequent collaborator Nino Rota, the film was finally presented to the public in February 1960, and immediately became a commercial and critical sensation. It was condemned outright by the Catholic Church, but this did nothing to stop the film’s success; indeed, it made it all the more scandalously successful. La dolce vita, of course, is deeply moral, opening with the famous shot of a huge statue of Christ being ferried by helicopter to the Vatican, with Marcello and Paparazzo along for the ride, suggesting that the hope of redemption exists, even if we seek to reject it in our search for ephemeral fame and pleasure. As Fellini said of the finished film: “I wanted to shoot with the camera a conflagration in the culminating moment of its splendor, just before its disintegration” (9).
Coming as it did at the end of the 1950s, La dolce vita is a film that sums up the excesses and follies of that decade, and also gestures toward the onrushing 1960s. With La dolce vita, Fellini ended his first great decade as a filmmaker. Perhaps significantly, Fellini’s next feature film, 8½ (Otto e mezzo, 1963), dealt with creative block, as film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) can’t get his new film off the ground because he’s run out of material from his own life with which to create it. The sets are all built, the actors hired, the costumes prepared, and the money in place, but Guido has no idea what to shoot. The film ends with the situation unresolved, but by looking more intensively into his past, it is implied that Guido will find hope for his future work. 8½ won Fellini his third Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and he was soon involved in a series of captivating, dreamlike projects that occupied his attention in the 1960s and 1970s.
- Hollis Alpert, Fellini: A Life, Paragon House, New York, 1988, pp. 118-21.
- Angelo Solmi, Fellini, trans. Elizabeth Greenwood, Merlin, London, 1967, p. 141.
- Solmi, pp. 141-2.
- Solmi, p. 143.
- Solmi, p. 144.
- Mick Brown, “Actress Luise Rainer on the Glamour and Grit of Hollywood’s Golden Era”, The Telegraph 22 October 2009: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/6398728/Actress-Luise-Rainer-on-the-glamour-and-grit-of-Hollywoods-golden-era.html.
- See Alpert, p. 135; Solmi, p. 144.
- Solmi, pp. 145-146.
- Fellini quoted Alpert, p. 141.
La dolce vita (1960 Italy/France 174 mins)
Prod Co: Riama Film/Pathé Consortium Cinéma/Gray-Film Prod: Giuseppe Amato, Angelo Rizzoli, Brunello Rondi Dir: Federico Fellini Scr: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli Phot: Otello Martelli Ed: Leo Cattozzo Prod Des: Piero Gherardi Mus: Nino Rota
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noël, Alain Cuny, Annibale Ninchi, Nico Otzak