LA DOLCE VITA – Blu-ray review

The main body of this review was written by James Plath for the 2004 DVD release of “La Dolce Vita” (1960)  by Koch Lorber. The Video, Audio, Extras, and Film Value sections were written by Christopher Long for Criterion’s 2014 Blu-ray release of Fellini’s film.

The Film According to Jim (orig. published Dec 8, 2004 and slightly edited for this re-posting):

Some films are so legendary that you have to wonder how it is that you missed seeing them. Italian director Federico Fellini is such an iconic name that I’ve often alluded to him when joking about people who try to film quasi-artful home videos—and I’ve never even watched the film that has been acclaimed as one of his masterworks. Until now, that is.

Although “La Dolce Vita” is indeed stylish, with scenes that will remain etched in my mind, I actually expected a film more daring in its visual innovation—Kama Sutra-like camera angles no one else had previously tried, or cuts and dissolves that might reflect the impending drug culture of the Sixties. I expected a film that pushed the censors to the very edge of their scissors. In point of fact, “La Dolce Vita” is an elegant, post-beat, art house film, but nowhere near the artistic explosion I had imagined in the build-up my mind had given it over the past 25 years. That’s the problem with reputations and expectations. Still, this was a film that won the Golden Palm at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director, winning for Costume Design. More importantly, it expanded the narrative stage for filmmakers.

“La Dolce Vita” is introduced by filmmaker Alexander Payne (ED. NOTE: This introduction was on the 2004 DVD and is not included on the 2014 Criterion Blu-ray), who admits to not being a Fellini expert (how many are?) but nonetheless gushes that “La Dolce Vita” is “a giant canvas of beauty and ugliness, seduction, melancholy, humor, imagination, and mystery.” He also offers a succinct explanation of what Fellini did in 1960 that was so innovative: “Rather than pushing his protagonist through a unified three-act story, Fellini follows him through a series of seemingly disparate episodes that form a loose, narrative string, a string which is suddenly pulled taut only in the final moments of the film.” And that’s what gives the film its honest (and sometimes unpredictable) range of emotions, rather than following a typical character arc from point A to point B.

“La Dolce Vita” opens with a visual stunt worthy of the late, great, master of surrealism, Salvador Dali. A helicopter hauling a statue of Jesus swings across Rome, high above the the ruins of the Coliseum. It pauses over sunbathing beauties in their bikinis so its occupants can shout, “We’re taking it to the Pope,” then try to get the sunbathers’ phone numbers. And THAT is a stunt worthy of ones that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their rich friends pulled in Paris and on the French Riviera three decades earlier. Fellini’s cameras follow a new generation of jet-setters every bit as careless, affected, and self-absorbed as Tom and Daisy Buchanan and those bombed party-goers from “The Great Gatsby.”

In Rome, circa the late 1950s, Fellini’s cameras follow jaded journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni, in a role that brought him international fame) as he bounces from one jet-setting event to the next. Marcello could pass for a playboy himself, and not just because of his good looks. Under the guise of work, he functions the same as any guest at these parties, and lavishes his attentions on more than a few women. He leaves one club with a rich woman (Anouk Aimee) who sports a fresh bruise under her sunglasses. No one noticed her, because more than a few people wear shades indoors, apparently just to be cool. In her car they drive until they see some women and offer a ride to one who is apparently a prostitute. Ahh, the bored rich and their diversions, those never-ending attempts to amuse oneself! They make love in the prostitute’s bed in her flooded basement apartment, and then it’s on to the next diversion.

And what a diversion! A blonde bombshell—the American equivalent of Gina Lollobrigida— shows up and instantly captivates the jet-setters. The beautiful and buxom Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) is egged on by a beatnik sort of minor actor (Alain Dijon) who gets her and the rest of bored society dancing. Lex Barker (of “Tarzan” fame) plays her ever-inebriated boyfriend, who is posed in his drunkenness by paparazzi and photographed at close range. There are plenty of comic moments as Fellini satirizes the lifestyles of the very rich and famous every step of the way. One particularly memorable scene comes when Marcello, infatuated with Sylvia, whispers while they’re dancing, “You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You are mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, earth, home.” But of course he says this in Italian, which she does not speak, so she’s oblivious to his rhapsodic come-on.

None of these flirtations (or at least the ones she’s aware of) please Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), Marcello’s live-in girlfriend who’s deservedly suspicious of his dalliances and tries to commit suicide more than once. But whether Marcello is lavishing his attentions on the newest celebrity darling, confronting his estranged father, hanging out in clubs with the beautiful people, attending private functions of his rich friends, or passing time with his female interests, you get the feeling that Marcello is indeed just passing time. No longer a reporter, like the rich he writes about his life has become so enmeshed with theirs that their attitudes have also become his. And like them—especially like his friend, Steiner (Alain Cuny)—it bothers him.

“La Dolce Vita” came out during a time when existentialism was experiencing a resurgence in academia, and Steiner could be the poster child for the existentialist’s fear of nothingness. “Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weighs upon me,” he confesses. Eventually, despair will take its toll on Steiner and his family, as we see a change wrought in Marcello as well. Weary of the sweet life, he goes from the bemused tag-along to buffoon leader. But the average viewer will be well ahead of him. As fascinating as their jet-setting antics are for the first two-thirds of the film, they can seem just as tiresome as the film plays itself out. Which is to say that while fans of Fellini and foreign films will relish every moment, like “Short Cuts,” Robert Altman’s fascinating adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories, “La Dolce Vita” will feel overly long to the average viewer. The problem is this: how do you write about plastic people without creating a narrative that seems, itself, loaded with plasticity? And how do you show how weary Marcello has become of this Roman circus without tiring the audience as well? If you’re Fellini, you don’t. Fellini is into voyeuristic filmmaking, chronicling life as it is lived, not life as it fits a 120-page screenplay formula.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “La Dolce Vita” is Fellini’s use of children throughout this frankly adult film. The most striking instance occurs when Marcello is to cover an event that could only be described as a media circus, where a brother and sister were said to have witnessed a visitation from the Virgin Mary. People in their sickbeds converge at night under bright lights in hopes of a miracle, but the children, feeling the power that has been handed them by the media, take full advantage. “There she is!” they shout, and all of the photographers and reporters run after them, from place to place. It’s a striking counterbalance to scenes where Sylvia and the latest media darling is able to cause a stir and get an entire crowd dancing just because she begins to act flightly. Just as Marcello follows Sylvia into a fountain, this capricious follow-the-leader scene with the two children finishes with a dousing, as rain ends the spectacle.

Marcello calls his friend—a photographer who works with him who aggressively competes with other photographers in order to get a celebrity photo—”Paparazzo,” the greatest cultural legacy that “La Dolce Vita” has given us is the term, “paparazzi.” To see the insane lengths to which these photographers hounded their subjects in 1960 is to anticipate with horror incidents nearly four decades later, including a tunnel scene in the movie which will have viewers thinking about Princess Diana’s untimely death.

“La Dolce Vita” is dated, of course, because of the dancing and the music, but Fellini’s episodic structure and voyeuristic camerawork (intended, perhaps, to serve as an echo to those paparazzi in the film) stand as an artistic achievement. The acting is solid, especially among the stars, but you walk away from this film remembering not specific performances but specific scenes instead. The black-and-white film stock, combined with Fellini’s use of light, creates a Chiaroscuro canvas where blackness gradually all but overtakes the light. And that, too, is what you’ll remember.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

“La Dolce Vita” has been digitally restored in 4K by the Cineteca di Bologna in collaboration with The Film Foundation. According to an introductory text screen, the original negative had some significant damage in parts, “particularly at the beginning of each reel.” The damage was extensive enough that a second print needed to be used to substitute for these frames.

The extensive restoration on these damaged sections (as well as the rest of the film) has certainly paid off with a vibrant 1080p transfer with excellent image detail throughout and a thick grain structure. The black-and-white contrast is perhaps not as quite as sharp as on some other Criterion high-def transfers but still plenty strong. Every now and then you’ll catch a slightly soft image, no doubt because of the damage mentioned, but nothing worth complaining about. Though that won’t stop someone from doing so, I’m sure.

The linear PCM audio mix is good but not great. Nino Rota’s score sounds a bit warbly at times but it still sounds great because it’s Nino Rota. Several scenes are quite spare in their audio design and this lossless mix enhances the appropriately hollow quality. Optional English subtitles support the mostly Italian dialogue.

There’s not much, if any, overlap from the 2004 Koch Lorber DVD, but Criterion has managed to unearth quite a collection of new extras for this Blu-ray release.

“The Eye & The Beholder” is a visual essay by filmmaker :: kogonada. His visual essay on Criterion’s “King of the Hill” was both compelling and insightful. This short piece (9 min.) is very accomplished technically, but a bit less convincing. This feature begins with the enigmatic final shot of “La Dolce Vita” in which a girl looks into the camera and focuses on other moments when actors do the same. The close reading of specific shots is very welcome and Criterion desperately needs more features that do the same, but I’m not sure if much of a point is being made beyond it all seeming “important.”

“Felliniana” provides a Gallery (56 chapters) of posters, lobby cards, and press books from Don Young’s extensive Felliniana archive. This is a bit of a throwback to older Criterion features as you proceed through the gallery with the left and right arrow buttons.

The rest of the features are interviews. Filmmaker Lina Wertmüller (2014, 7 min.) served as an assistant director on “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2” and discusses her impressions of Fellini as well as the ending of “Vita.” Film journalist Antonello Sarno (2014, 16 min.) touches several subjects but mostly focuses on the Rome locations and then-contemporary (if over-the-top) fashion in the movie. Film scholar David Forgacs (2014, 14 min.) provides the most interesting of the recent interviews, discussing how the film captured Rome in transition as well as closely analyzing some of the wide-screen compositions.

We also get two archival interviews. A Fellini interview conducted by Irving R. Levine (1965, 30 min.) for NBC News is pretty dry but of interest for giving us Fellini’s thoughts shortly after the double whammy of “La Dolce Vita” and “8 ½.” Actor Marcello Mastroianni is also heard in an audio interview (circa 1963, 47 min.) conducted by film historian Gideon Bachmann. I haven’t had a chance to listen to this one yet.

Unfortunately no commentary track has been included and more scholarly content would have been welcome for a film of such stature, but the collection is still pretty solid.

The slim fold-out booklet (this appears to be a recent trend for Criterion; no more new thick tomes on the way? That would be a shame) includes an essay by critic Gary Giddins.

Film Value:
I suspect collectors will want to own both the old 2004 DVD and this new 2014 Criterion Blu-ray simply because each disc has completely different extras (see Jim Plath’s original review of the 2004 disc for details) but there’s little doubt that this high-def transfer gives North American collectors their best chance to see and hear one of Fellini’s most lauded films.

The Blu-ray release was delayed significantly by a lawsuit over the film rights that was won by Paramount in 2013. The wait was worth it.