To my eternal shame I knew next to nothing about this classic film before stepping into the cinema. In fact, the only knowledge I had of the film was its most famous piece of iconography: Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain in Rome. That image has been held up and looked upon as a sort of romantic high-point in cinema. The film surrounding that image though is something closer to a look into darkness.
La dolce vita translates to “the sweet life”, a rather pointed title to the ensuing tale. Marcello Mastroianni stars as Marcello, a jaded tabloid journalist who moves through the fashionable circles of Roman life, documenting and in search of the elusive “sweet life”. Each encounter plays out like a vignette seemingly unconnected to anything else, though of course this is hardly the case. Marcello is a continual outsider, one who always wants to be “in” but can never quite make it. He puts on a good show, and looks the part of a suave, smooth womaniser. But he’s a tabloid journalist; he’s there to document the foibles and follies of the elite, not to be one of them. And this so-called sweet life is often shown to be hollow and unrewarding: in the opening scenes Marcello takes off with a wealthy socialite only for them to end up in a prostitute's flooded apartment. Each piece of the puzzle neatly highlights Marcello’s downward spiral until he is finally part of his sought after “sweet life”; the leader of a party breaking into a beach villa to while away the evening with bored debauchery.
This digital restoration of one of Fellini’s acknowledged masterpieces is dazzling in its clarity and beauty and there is any number of striking images, beyond Ekberg in the fountain. There is the aforementioned flooded flat, a media circus around two children who claim to have seen the Madonna, an argument between Marcello and his girlfriend on a long and lonely road and the final scene of a huge sea-beast dragged up onto the beach, dead.
I’m just not entirely certain how the film left me feeling. Going in, I believe I was expecting some sort of beautiful Italian romance as the journalist woos the movie star in hot cars and snazzy scooters sipping cappuccinos and calling out “Ciao!” but instead found I had my expectations upended completely. La dolce vita delves into something much darker, and that sharp upending of expectation left me a little lost. However, this is a film I look forward to revisiting and one that I am grateful to have first experienced in a cinema.