As the city of Rome is eternal, Federico Fellini’s films are eternal. They start nowhere and end nowhere. Not in nowhere, no, they just never end. They are the dream Italy dreams when asleep – or when drunk. (And what is Italy if not the dream of Europe?)
For example, did you know that while filming La dolce vita, Marcello Mastroianni was so scared of the ice water in the Trevi Fountain – it was January and it was coming straight down from the mountains – that he put on fishing rubber boots that went up to the hips and downed a whole bottle of vodka to finally stop those double shivers of shivering and cold? Finally, as he cautiously put one foot in the water, hoping to get this over with, he slipped and fell headlong into the well. The film crew dragged the shivering, dripping man into his trailer.
Meanwhile, the cool blonde Anita Ekberg stood stoically in the fountain and awaited the things that the universe had in store for her. That night it was the private comedy of a Mastroianni, who kept carting up and then slipping, who was rushed back to the caravan to change clothes, while drinking more vodka and returning. Finally, Ekberg said a few years before her death in 2015, the scene was in the can. She didn’t feel her legs anymore, at least for a while.
The anecdote was unknown to me, that night at the beginning of my student days – it was the late era of the tube television, the time of its last tube, so to speak – when I returned from dark, halfway wild Berlin nights to my one-room apartment in Prenzlauer Berg , which you could easily afford as a virtually penniless student at that time. Somewhat besotted myself, I switched on the television, flipped through the five or six channels – and got stuck with the beguiling black-and-white images: a helicopter flying a statue of Mary through the sky over Rome, the taut ropes slanting in the air.
A car ride through the city in an open car, woman’s legs sticking out backwards. A sophisticated apartment, in it a sad writer and an almost as sad journalist, in animated dialogue. Both in nice suits, which they wore in a way that was neither stuffy nor affected, which is not an easy thing to do when wearing a suit. However, Italians have an innate talent for this, especially when compared to Germans.
As if enchanted, I hung in front of the screen, I moved closer and closer until I could almost feel the electromagnetic sizzling. The internet wasn’t socially acceptable yet. I didn’t have a TV guide (of course not). Maybe I could have tried the teletext, but I didn’t think of it. So it remained hidden from me which masterpiece I had become aware of. For years it lived vaguely in my memory until one day it dawned on me. If you delve a little into film history, sooner or later you will automatically end up with “La dolce vita”. In the cinema, too, all roads lead to Rome, now also in front of your door: Freshly restored in 4k, the film is coming back to the cinema, 62 years after its premiere.
Young Fellini had assisted Roberto Rosselini and helped him write the screenplay, starting with the instant neorealist classic Rome, Open City. Fellini dreamed not only at night, but also during the day. Neo-realism didn’t really appeal to him, nor did realism. His ideal was baroque, schooled in the circus experiences of a childhood in Rimini, in the already then crumbling elegance of glamorous baths, bars and casinos. In the world of showmen, petty crooks and whores, which is perhaps the most affectionate word that the German language has for the corresponding service and that suits Fellini, who basically looked through the camera like a lover.
He once said of his work: “All my films revolve around one idea – to show a world without love. Full of people taking advantage of each other. And right in the middle a person who wants to give love.”
The formula is as simple as Einstein’s e = mc2. You stand in amazement. Then you apply it to Fellini’s films and find that it fits like a key in a keyhole. In “La dolce vita” this character is Marcello, a guilty gossip reporter, caught up in the media madness of the time, who at heart aspires to higher things, but unfortunately lacks the character for it. A classic figure of Romanesque and (post-)Romantic literature, a late relative of the heroes of Balzac or Stendhal – the moderately talented man whose talent for social ambition is not enough by day. Which is why he becomes a night owl.
Fellini didn’t even bother to change his leading man’s name. And just so he veiled him. Because of course he meant himself. This egomania is also part of his work, in this respect it is also an excellent product of its time, evidence of egomanic altruism. The weaknesses of one’s own perspective are always already priced in. Fellini has said his cinematic gaze stems from “the eye of the immature man shaped by a particular upbringing”. The women he desires can only be angels or demons. You have to understand that, you don’t have to stop there. We also see “La dolce vita” as a document of a time long past. Yet…
“Everything about it is beautiful” is a formula my colleague Frédéric Schwilden uses to comment on contemporary aesthetic phenomena on Twitter, sometimes seriously, sometimes ironically, mostly in a mixture of both. Everything about “La dolce vita” is beautiful, even the male gaze. This is of course due to the pictures, the people, the clothes, the cars, Nino Rota’s music, the tracking shots. Most of all, it’s the heart that beats through this film 24 times a second, a heart as hot as Lex Barker’s hothead punching a suitor of his fiancee and as cold as Ekberg’s legs in the Trevi Spring.
The scene at the end, when Marcello, after a night of partying with the mentally devastated Jeunesse dorée of Rome at the Lido di Ostia, spots in the distance the girl waiting tables in a beachside restaurant and falls to her knees, fascinated by her purity, should be on the next Voyager probe to the stars, such as Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” in 1977. The aliens will be lenient with the latent idealization of Virgo. You will understand what was meant.
The moral differences to our present – given. How could it be otherwise in a film more than sixty years old? In “La dolce vita” manifests the best man can hope for, an elegant, easygoing beauty, a compassionate look at our base ambitions that are gradually being buried over the course of life, and something akin to Christian grace comes close, even for the religiously unmusical. If you watch it once a week, you save on all courses in yoga, meditation and mindfulness. You can also enjoy it with a bottle of Montepulciano. In any case, I won’t go to see this film, but will make a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Square like others do at Easter.