La Dolce Vita review – timeless masterpiece will always be relevant

Federico Fellini's existential, Rome-set classic returns to cinemas to coincide with the director's 100th birthday

It is difficult to imagine a filmmaker like Federico Fellini working today. The Italian writer-director preferred to approach his profound and existential themes by making big, commercial, starry productions – a combination of ends and means rarely afforded in today’s increasingly imbalanced cinematic landscape.

La Dolce Vita, arguably his most famous work, is bold and ambitious in its narrative, its making, and its legacy. By choosing to focus on the life of Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a gossip columnist based in Rome, Fellini took aim at his own industry. To play these artsy, high society types, Fellini populated the film with figures he ironically ended up turning into stars, from Mastroianni himself to Anouk Aimée and the singer and model Nico. So precise was his understanding of the world of celebrities that everyone involved got to enter it – and that is also why, 60 years later, a restored re-release of La Dolce Vita remains a real event.

Even if today’s celebrity culture looks very different, Fellini clearly understood how it has always relied on the projection of one’s desires onto idealised yet necessarily inaccessible figures. The famous image of Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg kissing while standing in the Trevi fountain is itself only a misleading fantasy: in the film, the lips of Ekberg’s Nordic actress Sylvia never touch the writer’s. In fact, the fountain stops flowing suddenly, as though a pinch has woken Marcello from a dream. Sylvia’s bottomless energy and willingness to be admired by every man around, whether he is a photographer (the term “paparazzi” comes from the surname of Marcello’s camera-swinging friend Paparazzo) or a waiter, allows Marcello to believe that perfection can be his. But the actress lives so completely in the moment that she remains forever unattainable: everything distracts her and she is slipping away from the present itself. Marcello is forced to realise that Sylvia’s perpetual presence is, in fact, a relentless flight from reality – a tempting but unsustainable and lonely way to live.

The other side of Sylvia’s distractedness (comparable to the culture of instant gratification encouraged by today’s social media) is the obsessiveness of Marcello’s fiancée Emma (Yvonne Furneaux). Well-aware of his occasional infidelity, Emma hangs by the phone all day and tries her best to make him need her. What makes their dynamic more than a typical unrequited love story, however, are the confused feelings that Marcello has towards her. Far from simply using and abusing Emma’s kindness, he does often see the beauty in her hopes: she wants their love to last and become a reliable source of comfort. Contrary to Sylvia, Emma offers not an endless present but a safe future all laid out for him: predictable, but graspable. “No one will ever love you like I do,” Emma screams, not realising that this promise of durability can sound threatening to a man so unsure of what life should be. She projects onto him her own dreams of happiness.

Marcello’s dilemma between the endless pursuit of action and the reassuring calm of acceptance comes into stark relief in his relationship with Steiner (Alain Cuny), an older man who has renounced his wild ways for a life of quiet and familial contentment. Although they’ve known each other for a while and have only met a few times, the two men seem to share an unspeakable secret whenever they’re together. Mastroianni’s subtle sensitivity almost spells it out when, while listening to Steiner playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue on an organ in a church, he has to turn away to hide his growing discomfort. It isn’t incidental that Steiner chooses to play this sombre melody after jokingly starting a jazz piece. Jazz is anchored in the present moment, always changing and free, while the Toccata is written and must ineluctably go through its dizzying series of arpeggi. This is Fellini at his most trascendental: whether Marcello can stand it or not, the music – like time and life itself – must continue.

To call the film’s title ironic would be simplistic; Fellini gives his audience the room to decide for themselves whether life must be a battle or a surrender (or something in between) in order to be dolce. In any case, by making us confront the question, he brings us closer to our humanity – in all its beautiful and often intolerable complexity.

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