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.

“La Dolce Vita” was just released on DVD for the first time, and I’m happy to report that the two-disc package is worthy of a film whose reputation precedes it. The restoration and transfer is excellent, with the black-and-white picture looking even more striking in widescreen (at an aspect ratio of what appears to be 2.35:1, enhanced for 16×9 televisions) than the 1.33 ratio we normally see.

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, who admits to not being a Fellini expert (how many are?) but nonetheless gushes how “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, and 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—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 ends 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 has been restored and the transfer is excellent. The aspect ratio, as I said, appears to be 2.35:1, enhanced for 16×9 widescreen televisions. The black-and-white picture is extremely clear and free of graininess, and low-lit scenes produce images as sharp as conventionally lit scenes.

While “La Dolce Vita” was dubbed for its U.S. theatrical release, the dubbed version is not included here. The options are Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, or Dolby Digital 5.1. Why take an original Mono soundtrack and create two additional versions? I can only guess that because the score was lauded, the 5.1 was an attempt to placate music enthusiasts. But most of the film is dialogue, and the 5.1 has a hollow, unnatural sound for the speaking. The 2.0 stereo also has moments where the separation seems random and distracting. I recommend using the Mono track, which handles both the music and the dialogue with compromise crispness.

Koch Lorber puts together a two-disc package as good as what we’ve come to expect from Criterion, with an audio commentary by film critic and historian Richard Schickel, the intelligent intro by Payne, recent interviews with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, a musical montage of Fellini’s studio, a collection of never-before-seen Fellini TV shorts, an extensive photo gallery, a restoration demo, bios and filmographies, an interview with Fellini himself, and a slick eight-page collector’s booklet.

Schickel’s commentary has its moments, but the non-stop monologue too often touches on elements of the film that the average viewer can discern him or herself. Others may disagree, but I would have preferred it if Schickel had spent less time interpreting each scene for the audience and spent more time bringing outside research to the forefront.

The other extras are, as with Criterion releases, a bit random. Somehow the producers of this DVD got a hold of some 35 minutes of commercials which Fellini apparently filmed to be used to break up longer narratives. These range from a pasta commercial for women who want to lose weight (with a woman popping unexpectedly out of a big pot) to an armless old man playing piano BADLY on a TV show with his feet. One creepy clip, given today’s headlines, is of an Islamic beheading of a woman followed by a debate on feminism where each of the many participants has only a minute to respond—which, of course, isn’t enough time to voice anything intelligent or prolonged. One of the funniest is a clip on “facial aerobics.

The interview with Ekberg and Mastroianni is an odd duck as well. Ekberg’s interview is at her home, filmed in 1987, while Mastroianni’s portion consists of clips from an awards show and an Italian television interview. Both speak in Italian, with English subtitles—with Ekberg saying how difficult it was for them filming, because then she spoke only English, and he spoke only Italian. Ekberg is by far the better interview, talking about how “La Dolce Vita” actually caused her to work less, because it brought a deluge of similar roles, and she scolds Fellini (who would die just six years later) for not working with her after the film as he did with Mastroianni. Yet, there’s footage of her and Mastroianni watching clips of the film, a cheesy pairing that ends abruptly.

The audio-visual restoration demos are useful for seeing how much more contrast was added to the DVD print and also how the flickering and flaws of the original print have been completely eliminated.

Finally, the bios are remarkably extensive, though text-only with no photos. One of the most striking revelations: at the Milan premiere of “La Dolce Vita,” with its condemnation of the decadent and debauched lifestyles of the Roman rich, the audience actually booed and spit on Fellini.

Bottom Line:
“La Dolce Vita” was controversial film when it was first released, then heralded as a milestone film, and 25 years later it still holds up amazingly well. The film’s sad commentary on the public’s fascination with celebrity still rings profoundly true. Some scenes will remind you of “Roman Holiday,” but they’re only homages, and not a part of Fellini’s vision. As romantic as William Wyler’s Rome was, Fellini’s Rome is as bleak and unromanticized as a Wyoming gas station. With many of the scenes occurring after-hours, you could call it Rome after dark. And it’s a dark view of life that Fellini embraces. These too, we come to understand, are a Lost Generation.