Straddling the line between Fellini’s realistic early period and the full-grown fantastication that began with 8 1/2 (1963) is La Dolce Vita (1960). It shares elements of both eras of Fellini — being at once realistic and yet edging toward the fantastic, and even incorporating elements of the fantastic into its reality. The film begins with the image of a huge statue of Christ flying through the air — suspended beneath a helicopter. This is the modern world, after all. But, in the structure of the film — which ends with the discovery of a prehistoric “sea monster” in a fisherman’s net (a further Christ reference) and the inaudible words of a girl — the modern world is a snare and an illusion, one where human communication has all but broken down.
These events frame — and involve — the character of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), who lives what he thinks is “the sweet life” (la dolce vita) as he pursues his career as a seedy journalist and his avocation as a would-be playboy. Yet within Marcello is the desire to be something more, do something more. He wants to be a great writer, but the distractions are too great (and his shallowness is perhaps the most real thing about him), and he’s pinned his hopes on an intellectual hero (Alain Cuny), who turns out to be much less than he seems in the course of the film. La Dolce Vita is a film about self-delusion and the emptiness of modern life — as well as the allure of that life with its faux glamour and easy exhibitionism. Richly detailed, provocative and more than a little disconcerting, it represents a major filmmaker on the verge of his complete power.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke