No sooner had reporters spell-checked the word paparazzi and traced it to the pesky celebrity photographer in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita than a Felliniesque event occurred — Mother Teresa died. Coming amid the media feeding frenzy attending Diana’s demise, the death in Calcutta of the ”saint of the gutters” introduced an ironic dimension almost too contrived for a movie, except that such couplings of the sacred and secular are very much at the heart of Fellini’s eerie 1960 harbinger of late-20th-century celebrity worship.
From the opening scene, when a helicopter transporting a statue of Jesus to St. Peter’s pauses to hover flirtatiously over rooftop bathing beauties, to the finale, when a decadent reveler pulls Marcello (the society scribe played by Marcello Mastroianni) away from his last hope for redemption, a virginal muse from the provinces, La Dolce Vita confronts the symbiosis between celebrities and journalists — and in the absence of grounding religious values, an insatiable public appetite for the icons of a new, worldly religion. The film is a series of frescoes, a Hieronymus Bosch vision of crazed exhibitionists hungry for sensual stimulation but ultimately incapable of enjoying it.
In a series of tumultuous images, Fellini plunges us into the duality of Rome itself, the Via Veneto (”Hollywood on the Tiber”) and the holy city. Later in the day, the passengers of the helicopter, Marcello and the photographer Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), are at a nightclub, bribing the maitre d’ in order to get the goods on a prince who is trying to have a private moment with a luscious dinner companion.
When Marcello and the aristocrat Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) flee the club under a barrage of flashes, we might be overhearing a conversation in the Mercedes between Dodi and Diana. Maddalena: ”Always the same thing. Don’t they ever get bored?” Marcello: ”You should be used to it by now.”
The pneumatic Swedish starlet Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) cannily restages her descent from the plane, tossing her cape, blowing kisses. The press conference that follows is a Tower of Babel with post-dubbed inanities in every language. Posing as stars of the international cafe society scene are a variety of minor-league movie expatriates, such fragile presences as cultish Nico and onetime Tarzan Lex Barker.
Family is no refuge. The most poignant scenes in the movie involve the surprise arrival in Rome of Marcello’s father. This simple man, who has been absent for much of Marcello’s life, allows his son to hope briefly for a reunion, even a return to what Marcello was before he was corrupted. But the father is just a lascivious old man, and his failed sexual encounter with a showgirl dashes any chance that la famiglia can be repaired. ”I’ve given up writing and newspaper work,” the now self-loathing Marcello tells a fellow partygoer, ”I do publicity now.”
Fellini got it all, and not least the ambivalence at the heart of the enterprise. He himself was ambiguously poised between contempt for celebrity and fascination, just as Marcello, originally dismissing Ekberg’s Sylvia as ”the American type…an overgrown doll,” is soon drawn mesmerized into her orbit. Fellini shows society going to the dogs, almost literally, as a drunken character gets down on all fours and bays at the moon. But he is half in love with this procession of grotesques.
”Basta! Basta! Basta!” cries the ravingly inebriated woman, momentarily disgusted at the orgy’s excess, just as we are now. But does she mean it, and do we?