The biggest hit from the most popular Italian filmmaker of all time, 'La dolce vita' rocketed Federico Fellini to international mainstream success—ironically, by offering a damning critique of the culture of stardom. A look at the darkness beneath the seductive lifestyles of Rome's rich and glamorous, the film follows a notorious celebrity journalist—played by a sublimely cool Marcello Mastroianni—during a hectic week spent on the peripheries of the spotlight. This mordant picture was an incisive commentary on the deepening decadence of the European 1960s, and it provided a prescient glimpse of just how gossip- and fame-obsessed our society would become.
By 1960, Federico Fellini had already directed or co-directed (by his own counting) six and a half feature films, had been nominated for screenwriting Oscars four times, and had firmly established a reputation as one of the most important voices in Italian cinema. For all that, his new film that year, 'La dolce vita', can now clearly be recognized as a transitional work bridging the two halves of his career. It may also be the most important movie he ever made, and is one of several that can rightly be described as masterpieces.
Like many of his contemporaries during and after the Second World War, Fellini started as part of the Neo-Realist movement. Among other works, he wrote the classics 'Rome, Open City' and 'Paisan' for his mentor Roberto Rossellini. By the time he began directing his own movies, however, Fellini slowly lost interest in the strict dogmas of the genre or in merely emulating a sense of social realism. He allowed obvious artifice to intrude into efforts like 'La strada' and 'Nights of Cabiria', bits of whimsy and wonder that many of his peers did not care for but that critics and audiences around the world found captivating.
'La dolce vita' ("The Sweet Life") was the last movie Fellini made before segueing fully into his Surrealist phase with the autobiographical fantasy '8 ½'. Once he made that leap, the director never looked back. For the remainder of his life, he'd be known as the most famous Surrealist in cinema history, and his films would grow into outrageous phantasmagoric spectacles. The term "Felliniesque" would practically become a genre unto itself.
But that was all still to come. In the meantime, 'La dolce vita' pushes right up against the line between realism and Surrealism but never completely crosses it. The film follows the exploits of an entertainment journalist named Marcello (the great Marcello Mastroianni) as he drifts through the social scene in Rome, keeping company with socialites and celebrities, making an excuse of half-heartedly interviewing them when he feels like it. (The term "paparazzo" actually originates right here in this film.)
Marcello is a smooth operator and an only somewhat repentant womanizer. He repeatedly cheats on his high-strung and desperately jealous fiancée, even after driving her to the brink of suicide. His string of affairs includes a wealthy but ennui-ridden heiress (the lovely Anouk Aimée) and a buxom, vivacious foreign actress (Anita Ekberg). For the time he's with each woman, Marcello professes himself to be rapturously in love with her, and may even convince himself of it, but he's incapable of actually feeling that emotion. He's callous and detached from everything. He feels like he's wasting his life, and has no real friends. Journalist colleagues stand to the side and take photos as he's beaten up. When a man he considered a close friend commits murder-suicide, Marcello realizes that he never really knew him on anything but the most superficial level, which is the case with all of his relationships.
The film has little plot of consequence. The narrative moves episodically as Marcello flits from party to party, chronicling a society in decay and the malaise of the privileged as petty concerns are magnified and genuine tragedies are heartlessly exploited. Nevertheless, the picture vividly captures a place and a moment with numerous images and set-pieces of rapturous beauty. Despite his unlikable, even reprehensible behavior, Marcello remains a sympathetic guide into this world. His quest to find meaning in his life, whether he achieves it or not, is ultimately his redemption.
Upon its release, 'La dolce vita' was a sensational success around the world and has been hugely influential on countless subsequent films and filmmakers. Frequently cited as one of the greatest movies ever made, its three-hour length effortlessly breezes by. That any filmmaker could create even a single work this resonant and profound in a lifetime is an amazing achievement. For Federico Fellini, however, this was merely the cusp of an even more ambitious and defining stage in his life.
'La dolce vita' enters the Criterion Collection as spine #733 on both Blu-ray and DVD, with separate releases for each format. The Blu-ray is a single-disc edition that comes packaged in one of the label's clear keepcases. For some reason, rather than a traditional booklet, the disc comes with an essay printed on a fold-out pamphlet.
Annoyingly, upon playback, the movie opens with over a minute and a half of on-screen text about the new video restoration, which I suppose someone expects viewers to read every single time they watch the movie. Unfortunately, the disc does not even have a convenient chapter marker to skip past this intrusion and get to the beginning of the movie. You must either watch it or fast-forward.
I've seen 'La dolce vita' twice in 35mm theatrical screenings, both times from prints in excellent condition. The nature of the film's sublime style and visuals convinced me that I never wanted to watch it in any presentation that would be inferior to those experiences. As a result, many years have passed since I last saw the movie. I skipped over Laserdisc and DVD releases that were reported to be problematic, and held out for a Blu-ray, preferably from the Criterion Collection. And now here that is!
I normally feel that I can trust Criterion to do a good job with important classic movies like this. However, the technical information for this disc states that it's derived from a new 4k restoration performed by external parties, not by Criterion. In this case, the restoration was done by Cineteca di Bologna, The Film Foundation, and Pathé. That last part gave me pause, as Pathé very badly botched a so-called "restoration" of Marcel Carné's 'Children of Paradise' that Criterion got stuck distributing (and taking blame for). With that in mind, I couldn't help feeling some trepidation as I spun up this copy of one of my very favorite films.
Fortunately, once I got past the irritating text introduction, it didn't take long into the movie's opening before all my qualms melted away. This is an absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray, one of the very finest black-and-white video transfers I've ever watched. The 2.35:1 image has a luminous, silky smooth quality with excellent gray scale, contrast, and a natural but unobtrusive presence of film grain. The film elements have been cleansed of almost all dirt or age-related damage. Although the movie was photographed slightly on the soft side, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode has no noticeable problems with Digital Noise Reduction and exhibits a fine sense of detail, enough to plainly spot the wire pulling Anita Ekberg's hat off around the 35-minute mark. Somehow, this exquisite restoration has surpassed even my demanding expectations for it.
The Blu-ray provides the movie's original Italian-language soundtrack in uncompressed PCM mono format, with no alternate language dub options. When I say original language, keep in mind that Fellini shot all of his films with no live sound recording. All dialogue was dubbed in post-production. In fact, the director had a habit of not even writing some of the dialogue until after photography was completed. Actors on set might have spoken completely different words, perhaps even in completely different languages, than the final script. Accurate dialogue lip sync was simply not something that concerned the filmmaker.
This was a common convention of Italian cinema of the era, and contemporary American viewers will need to accept and get used to it, because dialogue sync in the soundtrack isn't even remotely close to the visuals on screen. It's very noticeable if you're at all inclined to pay attention to such things. However, if you don't happen to speak Italian, you should be able to tune out the problem relatively easily.
In other respects, the Blu-ray's soundtrack is very respectable considering the source limitations, but definitely sounds its age. The track has a rather flat range. A little hiss is often audible during quiet passages. Nino Rota's score is sometimes shrill. On the other hand, an organ sound during one scene is nicely reverberant. Overall, it's fine for what it is.
The Blu-ray boasts a new English subtitle translation. All subtitles are in white text within the 2.35:1 movie image, but are always legible. Because I don't speak Italian, I can't vouch for the accuracy of the translation, but I noticed some confusion about whether Anita Ekberg's character is supposed to be a Swedish or American actress.
Both Criterion's Blu-ray and separate DVD edition contain the same assortment of bonus features.
Fellini's 'La dolce vita' is one of my favorite films of all time, and has been among the top "holy grails" I've awaited on Blu-ray since the format started. More than that, I really needed a perfect presentation for the movie. As high as my expectations were, I think Criterion has met them. This Blu-ray has a flawless video transfer and some mostly interesting bonus features. For any film lover who isn't afraid of classic or foreign cinema (in black-and-white, no less!), this disc comes very highly recommended.