Shock is gone from 'La Dolce Vita,' but charm and grace remain

December 06, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"La Vita" is still "Dolce" all these years later but it somewhat lacks the spice it once had.

In 1960, Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" ("The Sweet Life") was such a scandal that my friend Lanahan and I sneaked down to the North Side of Chicago and lied about our ages in order to find out what all the fuss was about. Lanahan was studying for the priesthood but he was willing to risk eternal damnation for a shot at Anita Ekberg's cleavage. My soul was not at stake; I had already sold it in order to become a movie critic.

The movie put us in a state best described as complete befuddlement. We weren't exactly into European art films; we just liked blond women with large breasts. But there was all this other stuff: religious miracles, lots of smoking and ennui, freaks, women with eye shadow that turned them into Vulcans, jabbering, and Marcello Mastroianni, bored by it all. Hard to make sense of it if you're 15 and your sense of Great Art begins and ends with Norman Rockwell.

Thirty-one years later, I am happy to report that Ms. Ekberg remains a natural phenomenon that must be seen to be appreciated (Lear was right; ripeness is all) and Mastroianni is still bored. The movie, a restored version of which opens today at the Charles, has lost its considerable power to shock -- eroded by three decades of movie atrocity -- but not its power to charm.

It dissected Roman cafe society through Mastroianni's eyes (that is, through Fellini's) from a sensibility so jaded and unshockable that nothing really registered except the self. Marcello's Marcello was a perfect point of view: A slumming artist (really a "serious" writer, he's writing a gossip column). It doesn't hurt that he's the world's handsomest man (the young Mastroianni was Warren Beatty with class; the old Mastroianni is still Warren Beatty with class) and that his easy, gliding ways make him welcome in any circle.

Fellini would later give up on realism, and even in this film you can feel him sliding toward a more symbolic vernacular; but this movie found him in perfect equilibrium between realism and symbolism, and the images move with hypnotic grace over the screen. It's still a great movie, and although Lanahan did give up on the priesthood, I'm not sure it was Fellini's fault. God moves in mysterious ways.

'La Dolce Vita'

Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg.

Directed by Federico Fellini.

Unrated.

*** 1/2

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