Ken Wilson looks at the enduring appeal of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita on its 60th anniversary, and the centenary of its director. Be aware this article goes into the film in-depth, including details of the plot.

It’s one of the most famous opening scenes in the movies. A helicopter traverses a grey sky, its cargo, hanging from cables, is a larger-than-life statue of Christ. Even today the scene seems somewhat blasphemous. More surreal still is that the statue is being tailed by a second chopper containing a pilot, photographer, and some handsome dude in shades. En route, the helicopters hover over a rooftop where four stewardesses are sunning themselves in bikinis. ‘Look, it’s Jesus!’ says one of them. The dude gesticulates – he wants their phone number but the noise of the rotor blades negates any communication. Yes, it’s Babylon 2000 AD.

In another scene a plane comes to land, the steps are slid into place in a large pack of photographers gathers on the tarmac to greet the arriving film star (played by Swedish sex symbol Anita Ekberg) who appears in the doorway like a latter-day Botticelli Venus on her seashell. Federico Fellini’s 1960 cross-over art movie La Dolce Vita lovingly recreated the world of the smart set which inhabited the fashionable Via Veneto (part of the famous thoroughfare was created in the Cinecitta film studio) of the 1950s. At a press conference, the blonde is asked dumb questions. What are her favourite things? After a glance at her publicist, she giggles ‘love, love, and love’. The movie blazed a trail that heralded in the permissive ’60s and is almost a foretelling of the global hypnosis of vacuous celebrity.

In the 1950s Italy underwent a remarkable shift. After its defeat in World War II, the country had worked hard to provide its own economic miracle exporting Olivetti typewriters, Fiats and Ferraris, and mid-century modern must-haves all over the world. All the while, Italy’s old certainties of religion, family, and family values were under threat. Fellini set his magnum opus (it’s almost three hours long) in 1958, a year Rome was buffeted by political and sex scandals that made Berlusconi’s Bunga Bunga parties look quite tame. It was Fellini’s intention to highlight the shady morals of people in power and the emptiness of consumer society. However, he made it all look so impossibly glamorous that his movie had the opposite effect. Some see the film as a coruscating critique of modern life. Others see only sexy satire.

According to Stephen Gundle’s 2011 book Dolce Vita: Murder Mystery and Scandal ‘Fellini aimed to show how the development of the mass media was changing the face of Rome. It was a critique of a present seen as illusory and corrupt. The film registered the meaninglessness of contemporary religion, the hypocrisy of the famous, the irrelevance of the aristocracy, and the worship of the entirely worthless.’

La Dolce Vita celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and it’s Fellini’s centenary. The BFI has reissued its ‘film classic’ book by academic Richard Dyer. The themes and meaning of Fellini’s most famous film have long been open to interpretation. ‘It became a huge success and a huge divider of opinions,’ writes Dyer. It’s set over seven debauched nights and hungover dawns. The film reaches for high places and low – metaphorically and literally – for every dirty basement there is a glitzy penthouse.

At root, it is the story of one man, Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a thwarted tabloid journalist who desperately strives for something meaningful but is seduced by bling and attractive women in tight cocktail dresses. As a journalist, he finds communicating very difficult. His jealous girlfriend doesn’t understand him, the movie star for whom he falls speaks no Italian, and he is distant from his father. Marcello becomes bewitched by a Monroe-like movie star played by Ekberg. Ekberg and her actor husband (and famous drunk) Anthony Steel were renowned in Rome for their legendary public rows. La Dolce Vita was strongly influenced by real-life events.

The Marcello character was based on two prominent figures – the tabloid reporter Victor Ciuffa and Vittorio Gassman, a high-living Italian actor (who met, and was briefly married to, the young Shelley Winters when she was in Rome). Marcello’s sidekick photographer, named Paparazzo (hence the term paparazzi) was based on several Vespa-powered ‘assault photographers’. One of the most famous cover shots, taken in November 1958, showed a topless Turkish nightclub dancer surrounded by male onlookers – the climax of an impromptu striptease. The story was written up by Ciuffa, who Fellini met when researching La Dolce Vita. Fellini reworks the striptease into a sequence of the film where, at a divorce party, the hostess strips and the guests, dead souls all, wreck the place.

Rome’s Eurotrash party crowd were gaudily depicted in a 1950s lightly-fictionalised memoir by Gio Stajano (grandson of a former secretary of the fascist party). The book’s cast list included politicians and rent boys, transsexuals and underage starlets, their names changed to protect the guilty. The book was another influence on Fellini.

Fellini used one of Italy’s big scandals as a starting point. On a bleak stretch of beach near Rome in 1953, the semi-naked body of a young woman was washed up on the tide. Was it an accidental drowning, suicide, or murder? Wilma Montesi was neither wild, clever nor ambitious but an ‘anygirl’ in the phrase of a then-current ad for stockings. Somehow, it was alleged, she had got mixed up with a Roman nobleman who ran a narcotics ring from his hunting lodge near the coast.

The 21-year-old, it was claimed, had overdosed and was thrown onto the sand by her companions and left to drown. The police investigation into the murder lasted months and was devoured by the media (at the time Rome had 25 daily newspapers and countless gossip rags). Cynical pressmen and their parasitic photographers jumped on the Montesi story with its unreliable witnesses and high-ranking suspects – politicians, aristocrats, Vatican officials, government ministers – and this incendiary tale encompassed everything from dogging sessions to Mob-funded drug trafficking. The authorities didn’t want some grubby sex scandal sullying the name of the newly democratic Italy, or hinder the burgeoning film industry that was attracting lots of foreign money (thanks to cheap labour and tax breaks) and dubbed Hollywood on the Tiber (Quo Vadis and Roman Holiday were made there, with Ben-Hur to follow). Predictably, at the eventual trial, all the accused were acquitted and the case was never solved.

One of the movie’s most startling episodes involves Marcello’s visit to his mentor. The older man, Steiner, seems to have it all: loving family, smart apartment, original art, and intellectual friends gathered around that ’60s essential, a fondue set. But the two men share deep-seated concerns about the soulless world around them. A few days later Steiner murders both his children before shooting himself – another echo of a real-life case in France around the time. Steiner is often thought to resemble Fellini’s collaborator and fellow film director Pier Paolo Pasolini who was murdered fifteen years later.

‘The film colony in Rome provided a continuous feast of scandals,’ writes Stephen Gundle. ‘These did not damage the glamour of Rome but lent it a dark, compelling hue that Fellini exploited.’ And no one was spared Fellini’s savage eye. He fully admitted that ‘my inspiration for the film came from the scandal sheets, the worrying mirror of a society in a constant state of self-congratulation.’

The world Fellini depicts may be shallow and immoral yet it looks gorgeously seductive. As Dyer puts it, the film is ‘a combination of despair and buoyancy,’ and has long been seen as celebrating the world it condemns. Every stratum of society seems to have lost its way: religion is empty, the media cynical and manipulative, intellectuals hopelessly pretentious, and the arts community tired and vacuous just like the rest. Says one of the gay chorus boys near the end of the film ‘by 1965 the world will be completely depraved!’

The enigmatic ending with a huge sea creature washed up on the beach has had many interpretations over the years. Is it symbolic of the dead society seen hitherto in the film or is it meant to represent the death of Christ (the fish as a powerful Christian symbol)? Is it a reference to the dead Wilma Montesi? ‘Perhaps it echoes the imagery of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation, “the Beast of the Sea”’ ponders Dyer.

When the film came out it was widely criticised (the Vatican was scathing and it was banned in Portugal and Spain until the 1970s) yet quickly became a classic. Its scene with Anita Ekberg wading in the Trevi Fountain has become part of cinema iconography.

There was a strong legacy to the film too. Fellini’s follow-up was a virtual sequel and many critics consider it his best film. It starred Mastroianni as a troubled film director. And in 1962 American Technicolor rehash Two Weeks in Another Town starred Kirk Douglas. But by the mid-’60s the style capital was London and thanks to cheap package holidays everyone could get a taste of the sweet life with beaches and pavement cafes and cocktails before dinner.

The tourists who flocked to Rome looking for the Via Veneto smart set found that things have moved on. Every city in the world boasted a restaurant or coffee bar or fish and chip shop proudly calling itself ‘La Dolce Vita’, and perfume ads constantly refer to the movie with glam couples in eveningwear on speedboats or in sports cars shot in moody monochrome. Dior even has a fragrance called Dolce Vita.

Woody Allen revisited the movie in his 1998 film Celebrity and there was even a Felliniesque musical called Nine (made into a movie with Daniel Day-Lewis). The Great Beauty was La Dolce Vita as seen in Berlusconi’s Italy. The TV phenomenon Mad Men (a huge hit in Italy) borrowed liberally from Fellini’s fresco and in 2006 Italian beer brand Peroni ran a cinema commercial recreating key scenes from the film. In 2016 Shawn Levy wrote Dolce Vita Confidential which celebrated the Hollywood on the Tiber era.

The film still divides opinion. Time Out called it ‘extraordinarily prophetic.’ Film writer David Thomson wrote that the film ‘is now like an old shoe found on the beach.’

BFI Film Classics La Dolce Vita by Richard Dyer is published by Bloomsbury