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Pleasure Principal: Anita Ekberg makes like Paris Hilton in 'La Dolce Vita.'

Rome, Italian Style

In a new print, Fellini's 'La Dolce Vita' looks even sweeter than before

By Richard von Busack

THE WORD "cool" is degraded from overuse, but La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini's 1960 classic, has kept its cool for 44 years. In a new print, this three-hour exposé of sensation seekers doesn't convince you that modern Rome was as bad as the Rome of the Bible. Its shock value has evaporated. Today, when there's a homicide or a scandal, we rather expect the survivors to get cameras shoved in their faces. But in La Dolce Vita—which means "The Sweet Life" in Italian—the discontent with 24-hour party people was still fresh.

The social scene is recorded by an increasingly weary and self-loathing journalist named Marcello (the ever-bemused Marcello Mastroianni). He has a sidekick photographer, Paparazzo: all of his species are named after him. The movie is set at a time when Rome was full of movie stars using Cinecittà studios, following the huge success of Ben Hur. The dollar was strong, and the lira was weak, and international celebrities littered the cafes.

The episode that everyone remembers is one particularly wild movie-people fiasco: Marcello's restless evening with the Swedish sex-bomb star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg). They attend a reception at the Caracalla Baths, tarted up with neon and a rock band. Some famous Danny Kaye type turns up, with the beard he had to grow for his sword and sandal movie. The party starts to get out of hand; after a few drinks the bearded funny man turns out to be an incarnation of Pan or something.

Sylvia has a bespectacled alcoholic grump of a boyfriend (Lex Barker—"He played Tarzan once," exactly as a paparazzo comments), and he finally puts the kibosh on the evening. Was Fellini drawing some tabloid parallel between Arthur Miller and his unstable bride. If so, the good-natured way Ekberg does Monroe, and the helpless admiration with which Marcello watches her, is the most affectionate part of the movie.

The quieter episodes hold up beautifully, too. The only man Marcello admires is Steiner, who holds open houses—salons are more the word, since they're so high-toned. The lofty party Steiner holds isn't necessarily more compelling than the others; the philosophizing is fairly gassy. Still, it's a less negative night out than usual for the writer. I felt a pang when Marcello's girlfriend Emma senses his sad envy and tells him, "Some day you'll have a house like this."

And the episode of the surprise visit by Marcello's father is master filmmaking: he's a salesman (as Fellini's father was in real life) who comes to town and wants to be taken to a gauche second-rate nightclub he used to love when he was a young man. Marcello and Paparazzo go along reluctantly, as if they're afraid someone they know will see them coming out of it. And yet they really do have a good time, even when an ancient balloon clown comes out and does his act. During the evening, Marcello gets a fleeting glimpse of what his father was like, and then the curtain comes down again.

After some equivocating, Fellini said that La Dolce Vita was a Christian movie. If so, it's a skeptically Christian movie. Jesus has been airlifted out of Rome by helicopter, as we see in the memorable first sequence. On the one hand, the cycle of constant partying, gossiping and backbiting is toxic. On the other hand, since these revelers are today all dead or retired, it's a retro treat to watch them in their rounds.

It's been said that Fellini's outrage over the modern Romans wasn't much different from Cecil B. DeMille's outrage at the ancient ones: first, he gave you an eyeful, then he denounced the degeneracy. At the final lousy party, where the host is angry, Marcello excoriates the guests in terms straight out of Harold Robbins. As with Robbins, the shock has worn off, and even the once-unthinkable cross-dressers onscreen in La Dolce Vita wouldn't scare a Mormon.

But the eyeful remains intact, in Ekberg's 3am dip in the Trevi Fountain or the divorcee's (very tame by our standards) public strip tease to Nino Rota's "Patricia." What the years have left behind in this film are sheer coolness: a small part by Nico of the Velvet Underground, with her angel's face and her guttural German laugh; the constant parade of kiddie-car-sized autos cruising up and down the Via Veneto; the clinics and mansions that all look like auxiliary headquarters for SPECTRE, the pneumatic actresses falling out of low-cut dresses; and the jet setters who, quaintly, arrive by propeller-driven DC-6 airplanes.

La Dolce Vita (1959) opens Friday at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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From the November 10-16, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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