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LA DOLCE VITA
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, Yvonne Furneaux, Lex Barker, Alain Curry
Director: Federico Fellini
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 174 Minutes
Release Date: October 21, 2014

By 1965, there’ll be total depravity. How squalid everything will be!”

Film **

The above quote could have just as easily been spoken about Federico Fellini, a director I continue to have a love-hate relationship with. From the late 50s into the 60s, he embraced a kind of neo-realism in Italian cinema, before slowly unleashing himself and becoming the kind of filmmaker that specialized in excess and an anything-goes mentality. Fans of the director tend to either like his early works and shun his latter, or vice versa.

I’m more of the former, but not completely. The films of his I cherish include Nights of Cabiria and La Strada, but they also include his divisive 8 ½, which is the move where he really began to indulge his own sense of style and fantasy. But beyond that, works like Satyricon or Juliet of the Spirits were ones that, for me, collapsed under the weight of the excesses.

La Dolce Vita comes from the early period, but is one that definitely looks toward the filmmaker Fellini was destined (or damned) to become. It is one of his most beloved, and this, being my first time seeing it, was an apprehensive experience…I never know which Fellini I am going to get when I watch one of his movies.

It’s long, ambitious, sprawling, and almost epic, if you consider the fact that it meanders around Rome for a seven day period and no real story emerges. It centers around the character of Marcello (Mastoianni, in a brilliant performance), who is a tabloid journalist moving in and out of Italy’s post-war decadent and empty upper-class.

Each day focuses on the night and ends with the dawn, making me feel at the end that I had experienced seven hangovers but never got to go the parties. If Fellini is making a statement about the emptiness of this lifestyle, he succeeded…but enduring it is a bit of a challenge.

Over the course of the film, we learn a bit about Marcello. He is a womanizer, taking up here and there with the likes of a wealthy and bored heiress (Aimee) and a buxom movie star (Ekberg), but at the same time has a suicidal fiancée (Furneaux). He wanders in and out of celebrity life, and sometimes finds himself on the inside, though never completely. He has an estranged father and an artistic friend, who pines about a world detached (in a memorable bit of monologue).

Mastroianni is definitely a star and an anchor, lending a little weight to the frivolous proceedings. The other star is Fellini’s sense of direction…whether or not his movies are enjoyable, he is unquestionably a master of camera movement, space, and detail…every film he makes is visually enticing, even when the stories aren’t.

Case in point: the film’s opening shot, where a helicopter carrying a statue of Christ flies over the city. There is some amazing camerawork here, and leads to the first shot of Marcello, from a following helicopter, trying to get the phone numbers of some girls on a rooftop below. Neither can hear the other one.

It ends with Marcello on a beach seeing a girl we met earlier in the movie. She is far away and tries to mime to him where he knows her from. He can’t quite remember or hear. So our first and last impressions of Marcello are of a man who knows everyone, but connects with no one.

This is a movie I wish I could say I liked more, but it just wasn’t a pleasant experience to spend night after night with a different set of flamboyant, empty people indulging in their pet excesses. One gets the feeling that this film, almost as much as 8 ½ would next, mirrors Fellini’s own existence. It’s no coincidence that the same actor had the lead in both projects.

Yet I cannot say this film was a bad experience at all…there is plenty to marvel at regarding Fellini’s unmistakable eye for imagery and screen composition. He is definitely second to no one in the technical aspects of the art.

But I was left in the end yearning for the same emotional connection as Marcello’s artist friend. Perhaps the point was not to talk about emptiness, but to experience it, and realize it can still be a giant vacuum despite all the noise, lights, and inevitable sunrises.

Video ****

This may be by far the best transfer yet for a classic black and white film. Kudos to Criterion, who begin the film with a note on the restoration work. The job that was done here is flawless. Images are rich, detailed and crisp throughout, regardless of night or day settings, and every frame is filled with amazing images and striking contrast, all on a clean print…this is a perfect film for high definition.

Audio ***

The mono soundtrack is, of course, mostly Italian, with a bit of French and English here and there for good measure. Nino Rota’s score helps keep the proceedings moving. Not much dynamic range, but a good clean effort all around.

Features ***

The extras include:

New 4K digital restoration by the Film Foundation, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
• New visual essay by : : kogonada
• New interview with filmmaker Lina Wertmüller, who worked as assistant director on the film
• Scholar David Forgacs discusses the period in Italy’s history when the film was made
• New interview with Italian film journalist Antonello Sarno about the outlandish fashions seen in the film
• Audio interview with Mastroianni from the early 1960s, conducted by film historian Gideon Bachmann
• Felliniana, a presentation of ephemera related to La dolce vita from the collection of Don Young

Summary:

Fellini may just be one of those great directors whose total appeal escapes me; I admire his art, and certainly love at least two or three of his films. La Dolce Vita is perhaps his landmark movie; showing the transition from realism to complete indulgence. It may be a great litmus test for anyone wanting to experience this legendary filmmaker for the first time…and you can’t find a better way to do it than with this glowing, sumptuous Blu-ray offering from Criterion.

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