La dolce vita. Directed by Federico Fellini. Originally released as a feature film in 1960. Performers: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Anita Ekberg, Yvonne Furneaux, Alain Cuny, Lex Barker. Summary: Rome 1960. A jaded journalist looks for meaning among the beautiful people, but can’t find it anywhere. La dolce vita was the film that rocketed Federico Fellini to international mainstream success by offering a blistering critique of the culture of stardom.
“Either a film has something to say to you or it hasn’t. If you are moved by it, you don’t need it explained to you. If not, no explanation can make you moved by it.”
- Federico Fellini (1920-1993)
As we’re creeping up on the hundredth anniversary of Federico Fellini’s birth – and the sixtieth anniversary of the filming and release of La Dolce Vita – it would seem apropos to share some thoughts on one of his most celebrated and influential films.
But first, a confession: I was never much of a Fellini buff; what I’ve seen has been mostly his later, arguably more accessible, arguably lesser, works like Amarcord, Roma and Ginger & Fred. Thus my education as a fan of classic cinema had a conspicuous gap: I’d never before seen La Dolce Vita all the way through, only snippets. Of course I was aware of its awesome repute and had seen pictures of a beautiful blonde frolicking beside some kind of waterfall. So I looked forward to watching the complete film on DVD. And I wasn’t disappointed. Indeed in my ever-shifting pantheon of all-time favorite movies, Dolce Vita is nudging for a place in the proverbial top ten.
culture as couture
This was further reinforced by the large stage provided by the Rome Olympics of 1960: the games were an international sensation and added further momentum to Italy’s growing status as a top-tier player. Henceforth the made-in-Italy imprimatur would carry a cachet the equal of any other national brand. Glamour, cinema and city became interwoven, and Rome chic became the standard for measuring sophistication and cool.
La Dolce Vita’s cultural repercussions and connections have extended in all sorts of directions. To mention just a couple of examples: the term paparazzi originated as the name of a tenacious celebrity photographer in the film (actually the character’s name was ‘Paparazzo’). The sunglasses and snug black dress worn by Anouk Aimée, along with her svelte physique, find an obvious counterpart in Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly and her über-Sixties look in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Moreover, the collection of cocktail party types Holly ran with in Tiffany’s can be traced directly back to the beau monde who populate Dolce Vita. In fact it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to see Tiffany’s as the American Dolce Vita (though not nearly as good, in this writer’s humble opinion). Perhaps the ultimate nod was given in 1995 when the echt-French fashion house Dior launched a fragrance called ‘Dolce Vita,’ complete with promotional video in the style of Fellini’s film.
Even today echoes of La Dolce Vita reverberate in strikingly disparate venues: countless memoirs, documentaries, critiques, advertisements, fashion spreads, novels, parodies, blog posts and tributes have surged forth. The film’s spectacle of relentless photographers and gossip mongers who feed the public’s appetite for the sensational finds a reflection in our own media- and celebrity-obsessed times, whose manifestations are even more stunningly vulgar and would make Dolce Vita’s Marcello and his photographic entourage look like Edward R. Murrow.
those sweet sunglasses
Wardrobe designer Piero Gherardi was also Dolce Vita’s set designer and art director, and accordingly deserves much of the credit for the film’s well-heeled, high gloss look. As for the costumes, with the exception of Marcello, the women do seem to get the better of it. In any case, all the costumes in La Dolce Vita are important; the clothes not only reflect the character, in large part they are the character.
So many worthy exemplars we might cite: the bikini-clad, hat-donning bathing beauties who wave to Marcello and Paparazzo; Madame Steiner’s polka dot one-piece with white collars and white scarf which she wears as the swarming photographers descend upon her; Emma’s black dress, scarf and frumpy coat at the Madonna sighting; the recurring motif of the simple black dress throughout, the most stylish being the two black dresses worn by Maddalena; Sylvia’s demure vestmentlike dress which Gherardi borrowed from the Fontana sisters’ linea cardinale look of a few years prior; the stunning strapless dress Sylvia wears for her impromptu wade in the fountain; the Thai dancers at the night club and their strange get-ups, a good, if mild, example of Fellini-grotesque; Marcello's father’s conservative – if high quality – business suit, striped tie and old school hat which contrasts nicely with the son’s always trendy threads; and of course the impossibly cool sunglasses worn, day or night, by Marcello and Maddalena .
Then there's the exotic-looking woman at Steiner's party who sits on the floor strumming a guitar and singing a plaintive tune. She is adorned in toga-like one-piece that suggests ancient Roman garb, topped by gold headpiece. And of course designer Gherardi lavishes much attention on the film’s central protagonist, tabloid journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a man who, though short on substance, has style to burn. Mastroianni fast became the embodiment of continental cool with the dark glasses, casually elegant wardrobe and diffident manner. Gherardi dressed his savoir-faire hero in sleek designer suits or snug fitting tuxedo and bow-tie. But the outfit we remember is the white suit he wears in the final scene, though curiously the garb contrasts with the generally dark tones he wears through the rest of the film.
 Interesting that Marcello doesn’t wear his sunglasses in the two scenes with his friend and mentor Steiner. It’s as though by removing the glasses he wants to absorb what he perceives to be Steiner’s genuineness of spirit and intellect. Otherwise he uses the glasses as a way to keep the world at bay, allowing him to engage socially only when he chooses to.
 Despite the occasional surrealistic flourishes, the visuals in LDV are relatively restrained, low-keyed, and nicely controlled. But the rather detached visual styling doesn’t preclude an eye for detail, realized through a prowling, fluid camera that captures much but judges little: Fellini doesn’t render a verdict on the foibles of the characters he presents. Rather, and much to his credit, he simply records what he sees and lets the viewer make up his own mind, which of course always projects the viewer’s standards and biases. A dark mirror that reflects back at the audience.
Grace H. Carrier, La dolce vita: Fellini’s Farewell to the society of the spectacle, NYU Expository Writing Program, New York City, 2015.
Nicola Certo, "La Dolce Vita today: fashion and media," 2017. CUNY Academic Works.
Federico Garolla di Bard, Dolce Italia: the beautiful life of Italy in the Fifties and Sixties, Rizzoli, 2005.
Shawn Levy, Dolce vita confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, paparazzi, and the swinging high life of 1950s Rome, Norton, 2016.
Eugenia Paulicelli, “Fashioning Rome: cinema, fashion, and the media in the postwar years,” Annali d'Italianistica 28, Capital City: Rome 1870-2010, pp257-278.
Sonnet Stanfill (ed.), Italian style: fashion since 1945, V&A Publishing, 2014.