Federico Fellini, La Dolce Vita and the meaning of the woman

Posted by

The only person in the world who could boast of having (twice) bathed in the Trevi Fountain was Anita Ekberg. Indeed, before the iconic scene from La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini, the Swedish actress had already immersed herself in that same water a year earlier, in August 1958, when Rome was called “the Hollywood on the Tiber” and the stars of cinema populated the nights of Via Veneto. At the time, paparazzi were still called assault photographers and they had not let such an opportunity slip away, thus creating the precedent for what would become the symbol of Italian cinema and the reference to a world as fascinating as it is ephemeral. Thanks to their stories Fellini found the right inspiration for his film, to link it inextricably to the news, to the magazines.

The sequence of the American diva Sylvia is, in terms of timing, the one the director insisted the most on and the only one whose protagonist is in fact the same as the events that took place the previous summer (it is no coincidence that the character’s name should have been Anita, but the actress asked that there not be that match as well). Divided into five sub-sequences, the last two are the ones that have struck the common imagination more than the others and the one everyone knows: the party at Caracalla’s and the night walk through the streets of Rome.

"La Dolce Vita" (1960)_Baile

The image of Sylvia as a memory of a goddess is created precisely in the evening at the night club, when, during a dance, Marcello shows off his best flattering skills by telling her “You are the first woman of the first day of Creation. You are the mother, the sister, the lover, the friend, the angel, the devil, the earth, the house…”. Although she doesn’t seem particularly impressed, she still lets herself be carried away by the atmosphere of the moment, as if nothing existed around her. Not even her husband, Robert, who spends his time sitting at the table drinking and drawing in the company of other guests. Also, from a physical point of view Sylvia recalls classic beauty: the very pale skin, the loose hair, the Junoesque body wrapped in a black and white dress, totally different from any other female garment present in the film precisely because of its characteristic drapery like that of Greek statues.

The situation completely changes direction when Frankie, an old friend of the diva, arrives bringing a breath of “agitation” to this Roman evening. The rhythm of the music played by the ensemble also changes, moving from Caribbean rhythms to a fanfare of the Bersaglieri as in a progressive degeneration that continues with the appearance of a young rock’n’roll singer (played by Adriano Celentano, still semi-unknown at the time), whose fall from the steps symbolizes that of a new life: sweet, yes, but ephemeral. The atmosphere becomes frenetic and drags the guests into the dance. Everyone but Robert, who merely observes his wife’s behavior with disgust – going so far as to offend her to the point of making her run away. We then arrive at the most iconic moment of this film-fresco signed by Fellini: the walk at night through the deserted streets of Rome. It is the only solution that Marcello finds to be alone with Sylvia, walking around the silent streets and alleys. The gait, the attitude of the diva is regal, graceful and seem to give light to a city deliberately rebuilt in studios. From goddess, therefore, she is transformed into a nymph, like the one who in Ghirlandaio’s painting The Birth of John the Baptist carries a platter of fruit on her head, in the same way that Sylvia walks with a white kitten on her head.

The magic is then underlined by the arpeggios of the harp and by the cross fade which seem to isolate the images and suspend their time. The vision becomes more and more enchanted, almost dreamlike, when the diva-nymph is attracted by the Trevi Fountain and immerses herself in the water followed by Marcello, attracted by the same force. Just when he is about to kiss her, the spell that envelops them is broken and the jet is interrupted, bringing the two protagonists back to the dawn of a real world, that does not know the extravagances of the modern Hollywood Olympus – if not through the magazines and photographs.

The iconicity of the scene lasts the time of a muffled but ephemeral dream, but its great ability to evoke a situation, a period, a society that is now distant and (perhaps for this reason) full of charm. In retrospect, we could say that one of Fellini’s great skills was to create a work so understood in its historical period that we feel nostalgia for it even without having lived it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.