07 February 2010

Fellini’s La dolce vita

Directed by Federico Fellini.

Script by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi & Pier Paolo Pasolini (uncredited)
174 minutes 1960
Marcello Mastroianni plays Marcello Rubini
Anita Ekberg plays Sylvia
Anouk Aimee plays Maddalena
Alain Cuny plays Steiner
Annibale Nichi plays Marcello’s father
Walter Santesso plays Paparazzo
Nico plays herself
Dominot and Carlo Musto play transvestites
Country of finance: Italy/France
Nationality of director: Italy
Location of story: Rome
Filming location: Rome & Cinecittà


Marcello is a hack journalist chasing celebrities, religious stories and the local aristocracy.  He encounters Steiner, an established writer with a loving wife and children, and an attractive apartment, all that Marcello aspires to.  Later Steiner kills his children and commits suicide.  

Who are they?

Marcello Mastroianni (1924 – 1996) acted in 143 films.  La Dolce Vita made him famous.  He was married to Flora Carabella from 1948 until his death.  He famously had an affair and a daughter with Catherine Deneuve.  He died of pancreatic cancer.  It is also rumoured that he was the young boyfriend of Giovanni Montini (1867 – 1978) whose stage name was Pope Paul VI.

Nico (Christa Päffgen 1938 – 1988), related to the Päffgen brewery in Cologne, went on to appear in the Morrisey-Warhol film Chelsea Girls and to sing with The Velvet Underground.  She died aged 40 after a minor heart attack while cycling.

Dominot continued as a female impersonator and performer and has his own club in Rome.

Carlo Musto is otherwise unknown.

Steiner was based on the novelist Cesare Pavese(1908 – 1950) an anti-fascist and award-winning novelist who committed suicide.  Co-screenwriter Tullio Pinelli had gone to school with Pavese and felt that he had become burnt out.

Religious aspects

The film divides into seven episodes, which reflects the seven hills of Rome, the seven sins, seven sacraments, seven days of creation etc.  See the Wikipedia article for details.

The film opens with a parousia, an arrival of Jesus as a statue carried by a helicopter.  It ends with a parousia of the sea monster that can still look at you after being dead for three days (the fish symbolism of Jesus is hinted at here).  Both the opening and the ending have a non-communication because of distance or of noise.   Thus like Mark’s gospel the end reflects the beginning.  Click here for an essay by David Ulansey comparing the beginning and end of Mark’s gospel.

The centre of Mark’s gospel is the transfiguration where Jesus goes up a mountain to gain an epiphany.  At the centre of La Dolce Vita Marcello goes up to Steiner’s apartment and finds that what he believed in does not exist.  Steiner says: "Sometimes at night the darkness and silence frightens me. Peace frightens me. I feel it's only a facade, hiding the face of hell".

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano condemned the film as a parody of Jesus’ second coming.  The film was banned in Catholic Spain until 1981 after the death of Franco.   The Vatican also disliked the film for its portrayal of Rome’s aristocracy which of course is very dynastically intertwined with the Church hierarchy.

The trans bits

The famous sequence of bathing in the fountain was suggested by Giò Stajano (who became Maria in 1983) who had himself done the fountain thing, and had written novels about the café society scene in Rome, of which La Dolce Vita can be seen as a sequel.  His novels, of course, have a lot more gay characters.

When Marcello’s father visits and they go to a nightclub, he tells of his visit to Paris where he saw a stripper who revealed herself to be a man.  Probably he had been to Le Carousel, but it is not named.

In the last party scene, optimistically called an ‘orgy’ in some accounts, there are suddenly two young men who change upstairs, come down in drag and do a dance routine.  The others refer to them with male pronouns.  IMDB lists three transvestites:  Domino, Carlo Musto and Antonio Jacono (uncredited).  Close watching of the film fails to reveal a third transvestic character, but the mystery is resolved when one discovers that Domino’s birth name was Antonio Iacono.

Sexual politics

La Dolce Vita was made between two great scandals.  The heterosexual  Montesi Affair of 1953 began with a dead young woman washed up on a beach near Ostia (a second hint from the sea monster at the end of the film) and expanded into police and political cover-ups and tales of drugs and orgies.  The gay Ballete Verdi scandal, 1960 came right after La Dolce Vita opened, and unlike the Montesi Affair included no murder, but like it expanded to include celebrities.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this excellent synopsis!

A minor correction: Nico (16 October 1938 – 18 July 1988) was 49 (not 40) when she died. I met her at The Edge club in Toronto in August 1979 and attended the after-party (I was just 16 at the time). She was definitely one of a kind.


Anonymous said...

A bit simplistic to say that a loving wife, children and a nice flat are everything that Marcello aspires to. A part of him aspires to these things but other parts of him want freedom (and not just of the sexual variety), adventure and insecurity. We human beings are not monolithic, consistent beings but fragmented beings consisting of different and often conflicting 'I's.