Universally acknowledged as the most stylish movie ever made, director Federico Fellini’s three-hour magnum opus La Dolce Vita – rereleased to celebrate its 60th anniversary and the auteur’s centenary – stands as a staggering achievement in the history of cinema.
Acutely apposite for a country that had arisen from the devastation, and consequent poverty, of the Second World War to grasp a new prosperity that, described as “il boom”, the film, when first aired in Milan on 2 February 1960, cleaved the country in half.
Because of La Dolce Vita’s impertinent blasphemy and frank consideration of homosexuality, prostitution, adultery and sex, Fellini was seen as the Devil incarnate by the fundamentalist Catholic right. He was spat on at the premier and received more than 450 telegrams in 24 hours that condemned him as a communist, a traitor, an atheist and a total gobshite. Many others, however, deemed him the new Messiah and cheered him till they were hoarse. Accordingly, the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and became a cri de coeur for the young and stylish. Its title entered the English language to denote a libertarian lifestyle that, not without barbs, is anything but saccharine: its compelling indictment of the decadence of modern life and mass consumerism is even more evident in 2020. Typically, Fellini claimed he’d used the phrase without any irony to indicate “the sweetness of life” rather than “the sweet life”.
The film tells of a week in the life of an insouciant flâneur, Marcello Rubini (perfectly rendered by established matinée idol Marcello Mastroianni), a middle-class scribe who has sidelined his literary ambitions to become a gossip columnist. As such he buzzes about the party circuit reporting on the thrilling undertakings of the well-heeled epicureans who strut and preen around the extremely fashionable Via Veneto. Here, as in real life, international movie stars mingled with mobsters, collided with crooks, jostled with gigolos and piddled with impoverished Italian princes who didn’t have a pot to piss in. It was fertile ground for gossip columnists, who worked for Italian sensationalist magazines and tabloids that turned over a million copies a week.
In Fellini’s aggrandised, slightly surreal depiction of the “scene”, said sybarites on Via Veneto are so immaculate and effortlessly elegant that they’d give today’s coolest cats and kittens a severe drubbing in the pali di stile. They’re a timeless bunch – suspect nouveaux-riche, showbiz casualties, intercontinental nobility and hangers-on. Spot on to the last thread, from Nico’s (later of the Velvet Underground) fabulous beatnik black Sloppy Joe jumper and leggings to Mastroianni’s close-cut single-breasted suits, oversized cufflinks and Persol 649s worn day and night as he drives a 1958 Triumph TR3 convertible. The film, a humongous box office success, has influenced global fashion ever since day of release and thus apportioned Italy its enormous reputation as the world’s most stylish country. Subsequently, one laundered in a Zanussi, typed on an Olivetti and, if fortunate, drove a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo or a Fiat 500. Nowhere was more hep than Italy.
“These films showed us that there was a different world out there for us to grasp,” recalls early modernist and eminent gentleman’s clothier Lloyd Johnson. “Everything was grey in the UK. If you owned three shirts you were glamorous.”
Accordingly, Rome became the desired destination. And if you couldn’t afford the costly trip you drove a Lambretta or a Vespa, wore sunglasses at night, drank cappuccinos and hung out on the street even though it was often pouring with rain. Italianate became an adjective.
But that was then and this is now. Today, flights to Rome are affordable, so, rather than the trip of a lifetime, a visit to the Eternal City is now within reach for most. To whit, I travelled to Rome in search of “the sweetness of life” and flew into Ciampino airport. This is where the film’s famous Swedish-American Sylvia (played by the outrageously curvaceous Anita Ekberg) alights only to be met by howling hordes of journalists including Marcello. Beside him is his faithful photographer, Paparazzo, whose name has since been purloined in the plural to describe any and all celeb photographers. The surname Paparazzo hails from Italian word pappataci, which describes many a flying, biting, blood-sucking silent dipteran and differentiates them from the noisy, blood-feeding mosquitoes. A fuss today, forgotten a few days later, Fellini’s choice of moniker for his smudger is inspired.
I’d elected to stay at a the rather splendid Palazzo Montemartini hotel: a fine example of true Roman elegance that stands between Michelangelo’s Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli and Roma Termini railway station. The latter, created in 1950, hasn’t changed since its futurist frieze by Hungarian sculptor/actor Amerigo Tot (who played Michael Corleone’s older bodyguard in The Godfather Part II), forever resplendent atop its entrance, as it was when I first arrived here in 1990. On its surface, the city, as if preserved in aspic, hasn’t changed much at all: there are majestic buildings at every turn, while traffic makes no sense whatsoever.
My first port of call in search of La Dolce Vita was the celebrated Harry’s Bar on Via Venito. The place to hang in the 1950s and 1960s, myriad filmmakers and actors flooded the city – then known as “Hollywood on the Tiber” – to work in its film studio Cinecittà, built by Mussolini on the outskirts of Rome in 1933. Fellini’s star Ekberg was a constant at Harry’s, as was Orson Welles; Sinatra played the piano there. Brando also loved the place, as did, Burton, Taylor and Ava Gardner, while Rino Barillari – “The “King Of Paparazzi” – was forever lurking, ready to pounce on drunken celebrities.
Today Harry’s, although the drinks are great, is a shadow of its former self. As is the Via Veneto, which, like London’s King’s Road, seems now terribly sad having lost its sparkle, rather like a faded actress whose fans have moved on to someone else. The stylish, once so evident, are conspicuous only by their absence: the only person I saw with any personal flair was a high-class woman of abilities decked out in Prada exiting a five-star hotel.
Indeed, the only busy establishment on Via Veneto was the Hard Rock Café.
“It is shameful that Via Veneto, which is famous around the world, has been left in such a state of abandonment,” said Pietro Lepore, the owner of Harry’s Bar, in interview with the Telegraph in 2017. “It is just not acceptable.”
Incredibly, another La Dolce Vita Via Veneto institution, Café de Paris, is now shut, grimy and forlorn. Once Harry’s main rival, it initially closed in 2009 after it was discovered that it was a money-laundering front for the Cosoleto clan: part of the ’Ndrangheta mafia of Calabria, they are responsible for the importation of 80 per cent of Europe’s cocaine. It reopened a year later serving produce from lands confiscated from the mafia but bolted its doors for good in 2014 after a rather obvious arson attack. Its been estimated that 50 per cent of Rome’s cafés and watering holes are used by the mob to clean up their cash.
But all is not lost. Across the road is the Capuchin Crypt, where the skeletal remains of 3,700 Capuchin monks are housed. The city’s unparalleled history constantly overwhelms.
One location that remains thoroughly intact, especially round midnight, is the grand Piazza del Poppolo. Here, Marcello and his well-to-do secret squeeze, Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), picked up a street walker in the early hours and drove her in Maddalena’s 1958 Cadillac Series 62 convertible to her flooded basement slum, where they rather rudely slip off to have sex in her bedroom while she sits and waits on a metal step. Ho-hum.
Looking at the silent empty piazza I was certainly in La Dolce Vita territory. In the hope that the scene had not disappeared but simply just moved on, yours truly moseyed on down to Salotto 42 on Piazza Pietra, a little cocktail bar in between the Pantheon and Via Del Corso. A cosy little cavern that proffers such delicious and exotic concoctions as Lady Bramble (with homemade cardamom gin, Sangue Morlacco, lime and fresh raspberries), the crowd was rather funky and rather promising in that ever so Italian casual way. At 2am the bar closed so I walked the deserted but enormously evocative cobbled streets towards the movie’s most famous location, the Fontana di Trevi. Designed by architect Nicola Salvi in 1732 and completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1769, this is where Mastroianni and Ekberg so famously waded fully clothed in the film. My hopes to jump in were dashed as the square was half full of tourists taking pictures while an armed guard shouted at folk who came anywhere near the sacred liquids.
Still on the lookout for LDV I checked into Raspoutine – sister of the Parisian nightspot. Described as Rome’s most fashionable nightclub, it’s decked out like some early 1980s rendering of a club in the 1930s. It reminded me of clubs like Bonbonniere in Soho, or perhaps Tramp a few decades ago: lots of skinny, pretty, designer-clad girls with straight hair, the odd B-list celeb, conspicuous footballers, casually dressed young men with collar-length hair in Gucci loafers and jeans, while its electric house soundtrack was rather predictable. It wasn’t bad, but certainly not up to La Dolce Vita standards.
Then again, what is? The club scenes in La Dolce Vita are the stuff of dreams. The first – a black-tie supper club – features crazy, gold-painted Balinese dancers and a crowd of princes, gangsters and beauties, while the second (perhaps the most amazing club one might ever see) is set within the walls of the massive Baths of Caracalla built between AD 212-217. But it’s not just the setting created by superlative art director Piero Gherardi that is so exemplary, it’s also his Oscar-winning costumes and extras: an East Asian lady in an Anna Mae Wong dress; a middle-aged fashion victim sporting an outrageous feathered hat cheek to cheek with a twentysomething modernist; a matinée idol sandwiched between two grande dames in ball gowns; a gay youth with his older moustachioed beau; and bearded Frankie – who looks exactly like the lecherous Pan – who walks around on his hands, picks up Ekberg and carries her about aloft.
Not surprisingly, there was no party or Pan lookalikes when I was at Caracalla, only my companion and I and a gang of Chinese tourists taking selfies.
Next morning, after one of the finest hotel breakfasts this well-travelled scribe has ever encountered, I was up another location: the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. In truth, the scene was shot in a studio in Cinecittà Studios but, as the sets have long been taken down and Cinecittà is now a theme park, we had to make do with the real thing. I took a lift up the first 231 steps for €8 then walked up the steep, narrow, single-file 320-step staircase, ascending the steep incline that leads to the open-air dome some 450 feet above sea level. Once atop, what breath you have left will be robbed by this utterly astounding view: a chance to oversee the amazing city that has remained intact since way before the movie.
The most notable change in this still amazing city – which wasn’t evident in 1960 and was certainly negligible in 1990 – is not the millions of tourists, but the thousands of human parasites that feed on them. Swarms of con artists buzz about the must-see sites offering metro tickets, escorted trips, pictures with parrots, etc; but best don’t stop, don’t reply and carry on as if you know where you are going. If you want to go to St Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums, do not buy tickets that promise no queues. The lines are nothing to complain about (apart from at the height of summer) – entrance to St Peter’s is free, while the Vatican Museums is just £14 to see eight galleries and the 20,000 artworks on display.
After refusing to pay £17 for a slice of Fiorentina pizza from a pizzeria near the Vatican, I thus ate only in recommended typico Roman restaurants, as Fellini would have done. Luciano, near Campo de’ Fiori, served me the most incredible Michelin-starred carbonara (known as “Rome on a plate”) followed by the best tiramisu I have ever consumed. Another – Armando al Pantheon, an eatery run by the Gargiolis (a dyed-in-the-wool Roman family), which opened in 1961 – served me bruschetta with stracciatella and anchovies from Sciacca, as well as Roman meatballs with potato gnocchi that, helped along with a bottle of Brunello, knocked us well into touch. I’m most sure Fellini and his cast ate such excellent grub.
Graciously, the waiter at Armando pointed me over the Tiber to the cobbled back streets of Trastevere where, he said, I will see typico Roma. He was right: a neighbourhood bursting with little quirky pavement cafés and bars, such as Pimm’s, Barberini and jazz blues venues such as Big Mama (jazz is hip in Italy – check out Mario Biondi), and real living and breathing Romans. I’d wondered where the locals were hiding.
“So many Romans have been priced out of the centre,” says Fabrizio Lombardi, who owns one of the city’s finest antique stores at No20 Via dei Coronari. “This street used to be full of beautiful antique shops but now there are only three left including mine [which is modern 20th-century antiques] as the rest have been pushed out by rising rents, replaced by shops selling exactly the same cheap tourist rubbish made in China. The centre of Rome is almost only tourists now. If it was America they’d charge you to enter.”
As Fellini once said, “My mother wanted me to be a doctor or an architect but I’m quite happy being an adjective.” The same might be said of La Dolce Vita: now more a concept than a destination. I’d certainly pay to enter the world of La Dolce Vita, but to visit and compare Rome now to the picture’s bizarre and quirky portmanteau is a fool’s errand. Yet chasing the film, even in today’s Rome, is still an an immensely rewarding experience.
Chris Sullivan stayed at Palazzo Montemartini Rome. radissonhotels.com. As part of a Fellini retrospective, the 4K restoration of La Dolce Vita, in celebration of its 60th anniversary and Federico Fellini’s centenary, is now on at the BFI and selected cinemas throughout the UK including the ICA, Curzon, HOME Manchester, Glasgow Film Theatre, Triskel Arts Centre Cork and Queen’s Film Theatre Belfast. Find the full list of theatres here.
An oral history of how Robert De Niro was cast in The Deer Hunter – and how he prepared for the role
Tears, shoe polish and leotards: Anthony Daniels’ life on the set of Star Wars
The Italian Job 50th anniversary: exclusive interview with David Salamone
All products featured on the website are independently selected by our Editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.