A young playboy paparazzi journalist, Marcello, is living a glamorous but superficial life with affairs, parties and celebrities. A young starlet flies into town and he gets involved...will his frivolous life seem enough...
Federico Fellini's parody of the parasites who bask in the glory of cheap publicity not only exposes the emptiness of their lives, but also of those who report their antics as if they were of world-shattering import. And, of course, by association, he's also taking a pop at those of us who shell out our hard-earned cash to read about them and then salaciously discuss every trivial detail.
This was the film that coined the term 'paparazzi', and the morality of the international squadron of shutterbugs doesn't seem to have changed much since Fellini followed its founding members as they snapped celebrities along Rome's Via Veneto. The film is now 43 years old — older than the tabloids, colour supplements and lifestyle magazines that peddle the inconsequential doings of nobodies as inspiration for those aspiring to secure their own slice of la dolce vita. Yet it could have been filmed yesterday, although no-one around now could hope to match Fellini's satirical genius or Marcello Mastroianni's insouciant charm.
You can imagine the furore this mischievous expose caused in more innocent times. Italian cinema in 1960 was still more in thrall to the neorealists of the post-Fascist era than the New Wavers who had just taken France by storm. Indeed, Fellini himself was considering directing a rose-tinted realist project called Fortunella — about a waif living with a junk dealer who yearns for respectability through an affair with an aristocratic academic. He decided to pass in case he was accused of reprising themes already explored in his breakthrough features, La Strada (1954) and Nights Of Cabiria (1957).
He was no more enthusiastic about making an adaptation of Boccaccio's Decameron, Barabbas (with Anthony Quinn), Don Quixote (with Jacques Tati), Casanova's Memoirs (with Orson Welles) or regular collaborator Ennio Flaiano's fantasy, A Martian In Rome. So, instead, he chose to revisit a couple of stalled assignments to consider the ethical shift that had accompanied Italy's transition from post-War poverty to the avarice and complacency of the buoyant 1950s.
Moraldo In The City had been started in 1954 and recalled Fellini's experiences as a young journalist on the magazine Marc'Aurelio. Meanwhile, A Journey With Anita was a 1956 treatment about a Rome-based writer who takes up with a young mistress following the collapse of his marriage. On to these bare bones, Fellini created the character of Marcello Rubini's (Mastroianni) playboy hack, at once attracted and repelled by the carnival around him.
But the rest of La Dolce Vita was gleaned from stories that had hit the headlines over the previous decade. A statue of Christ had been flown over Rome en route to the Vatican on May Day in 1950 (as replicated in the famous opening shot), while two girls from the town of Terni had claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary in June 1953. The party striptease duplicated an incident at a bash thrown for millionaire RH. Vandebilt in 1958, while the Steiner (the bohemian Marcello so envies) subplot was inspired by the tragedy of an embittered intellectual who had killed his children before jumping to his death. The most notorious borrowing, however, was the discovery of a woman's corpse on the beach, which alluded to the Montesi Case that had caused a major scandal in 1957 when the prime suspect was supposedly exonerated owing to his contacts in high places.
But it wasn't just the liberation Rome demonstrated following the death in 1958 of the puritanical Pope Pius XII that prompted the glitterati to indulge in unashamed decadence. The Eternal City had become the capital of cool in the eyes of many Americans after the success of Roman Holiday (1953) and Three Coins In The Fountain (1954). Stars of varying lustres were keen to work at firm studio Cinecitta on epics like Ben-Hur (1959), while Hollywood companies were keen both to free up some of the resources frozen in Europe after the War and to save on production costs at a time of spiralling budgets and dwindling box office returns by shooting so-called 'runaways' abroad.
In truth, the city was a little strarstruck. Its social movers and showbiz shakersaped the styles and mannerisms of even such minor names as musclemen Lex Barker and Steve Reeves, who were treated like superstars while making sword-and-sandals pictures. Rome was awash with has-beens, wannabes and serial losers, and Fellini couldn't resist exposing their pathetic desperation on the screen.
Paul Newman was reportedly keen to participate in this denunciation of faux glamour, but Fellini had already decided that Marcello Mastroianni was his ideal alter ego. His other casting decisions infuriated producer Dino De Laurentiis, who had envisaged Maurice Chevalier as Marcello's father (who would be played by Fascist-era icon, Annibale Ninchi), Henry Fonda as Steiner and Barbara Stanwyck as Nadia. However, Fellini himself had been forced to make some compromises. At various times he had considered Peter Ustinov and Walter Pidgeon for Steiner (Alain Cuny), Silvana Mangano (former pin-up of Italian cinema who was now Mrs. De Laurentiis) for the heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) and Edwige Feuillere, Greer Garson and Luise Rainer for Nadia (Nadia Gray).
Yet no-one could have hoped for a better starlet than Anita Ekberg, whose career summed up much of what Fellini was satirising. Since coming fourth in the 1951 Miss Universe contest, she'd been as much known for her rocky marriage to British thesp Anthony Steel as her acting. But now it's impossible to think of anyone else cavorting in the Trevi Fountain with such pneumatic sensuality.
Convinced this "incoherent, false and pessimistic" picture would cost his wallet and reputation, De Laurentiis baled out. Fellini accepted the backing of maverick publisher Angelo Rizzolli, who gave him $50,000 and a gold watch for breaking both domestic and US box office records.
At least Fellini could console himself with the fact that he had upset just about every section of society, with Catholics banned from seeing such atheist, Communist and treasonable filth. Moreover, his brilliant use of a shallow depth of field on a sprawling canvas had revealed the beautiful people of the ancient capital to be as isolated as the miserable bourgeois scouring the remote rock in 1960's other landmark European film, Antonioni's L'Avventura.
But most significantly, Fellini had single-handedly rebranded and repositioned Italian cinema. In doing so, he earned himself the creative freedom that would result in yet another masterpiece, 8 1/2 (1963).
This and 8 1/2 are Fellini's great masterpieces.