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Fellini’s masterpiece showing at DPAC

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The brief years between 1959 and 1960 were staggeringly important and groundbreaking in the burgeoning film world – Jean-Luc Godard’s “A Bout de Souffle,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” and Francois Truffaut’s “Les Quatre cents coups” were all released in that brief span of time.

Equally important among them was Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (“The Sweet Life”), the film that catapulted its director to international prominence and one of the towering and enduring motion pictures of its time.

Though not as inscrutably brilliant as his 1963 masterpiece “Otto e Mezzo” (“8 1/2”) or as poignantly beautiful as 1954’s “La Strada,” “La Dolce Vita” may stand as the Fellini’s best film, and, subsequently, as one of Italy’s best films.

Eschewing the “cinema veritae” tendencies of Italian Neo-Realism, “La Dolce Vita” may be the archetypal Fellini film: at once serious and whimsical, realistic enough to be engagingly grounded, yet just flighty enough to keep its audience unbalanced.

The film follows gossip columnist Marcello Rubini (Fellini’s alter-ego Marcello Mastrioanni) as he explores a staggeringly decadent Rome. He becomes increasingly drawn into the heady hedonism of the world around him, as he finds himself entrenched with socialite Maddalena (Anouk Aimee), his mistress Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) and a bisexual prostitute (Adriana Moneta).

As Rubini descends into the decadence surrounding him, he stops trying to resist and starts accepting the shallowness of his life, eventually indulging in “the sweet life” described by the title.

Critic Lucia Bozzola notes that “La Dolce Vita” was a major success partially due to its “then-frank sexuality,” and while that may be true, such an analysis suggests that it is badly outdated. Surprisingly, the film holds up remarkably well nearly half a century later, thanks to the unique vision of its director. Admittedly, some elements of the plot haven’t dated well, but the stunning widescreen cinematography and Fellini’s eye for composition and pacing keep the whole affair afloat.

There are some indelibly iconic moments sprinkled throughout the film, especially the evocative opening and closing shots, which have helped define a style justifiably called “Fellini-esque.” Like all Italian films of the period, “La Dolce Vita” was shot silently and dubbed later, which grants a slightly detached quality that serves Fellini’s stylistic tendencies surprisingly well.

“La Dolce Vita” is thoroughly an art film, beautifully shot and deliberately paced. At 174 minutes, it’s also quite long, but Fellini’s directorial sense, and Mastrioanni’s strong presence keep the audience engaged throughout.

It was a major success internationally, as it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and garnered a Best Director Oscar nomination for Fellini and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. Though it may be argued that the seminal director’s other films (“Otto e Mezzo,” “La Strada,” “Amarcord”) are more personal, few would argue that “La Dolce Vita” is not a masterpiece, and it endures as one of the defining films of the 1960’s.

“La Dolce Vita” is being screened on Saturday as part of the PAC Classic 100.