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La Dolce Vita, 50 years and counting

Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, pic Internatioanl Media Films
Anita Ekberg in the Trevi fountain is an iconic scene in 20th Century cinema

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

Fifty years ago this month, cinema history was being made - inside a fountain.

Not any old fountain, but Salvi's masterpiece, the Trevi fountain, in the centre of Rome.

The scene has the actors Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni wading through its chilled waters in sensual abandon.

An erotically charged, but fully clothed, expression of lust and loss, it was shockingly original and audacious for audiences half a century ago.

Sophia Loren
If I can still clearly remember it 50 years after it was made, that means it was special
Sophia Loren

The film was La Dolce Vita, or The Sweet Life.

The Trevi fountain scene has become an iconic moment, pitting an electrifying Ekberg, with those waters caressing her impossibly voluptuous body, alongside a hopelessly infatuated, tuxedo-clad Mastroianni.

It is a fusion of eroticism, temptation and ultimately frustration and all encapsulated into one minute and 38 seconds of celluloid brilliance.

Shot on a March evening in 1959, cinematic legend has it that Mastroianni was so cold he needed his acting resolve stiffened with the twin props of a wet suit and a bottle of vodka.

Miss Ekberg, it seems, generated enough on-screen warmth of her own to avoid the need for supplementary heating aids.

Broken taboos

The Trevi fountain is one of countless scenes in a landmark movie that some believe changed the direction of cinema.

La Dolce Vita steam-rollered out the familiar, formulaic post-war style of film making, and ushered in a pulsating new approach, a new realism.

Valeria Ciangottini
Fellini made us all feel so comfortable
Valeria Ciangottini

Dialogue, characters, subjects all became daring, challenging and absorbing.

Taboos were broken, old ideas and ways shaken off.

The Vatican condemned it, whilst critics, for the most part, loved it.

On its release, some members of the public spat at the film's director, Federico Fellini, so incensed were they by what they saw as his subversion of accepted morals and values.

Built around a series of set piece moments, La Dolce Vita is an episodic satire on the public's infatuation with celebrity.

There's Anita Ekberg, for example, playing a film star who becomes a fantasy figure for Mastroianni and all the other men around her.

The French actress Anouk Aimee is Maddalena, a beautiful, rich, but jaded, lover.

And then there is Mastroianni himself, with his matinee-idol looks in search of a meaning to his life amid the social ambiguities of post-war, post-fascist Italy.

Hope and despair

The actress Valeria Ciangottini appeared in the film as 13-year-old Paola - the personification of innocence surrounded by the compromise and darkness that underlies the film.

Now living outside Rome, Valeria told us making the film was magical.

Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita, pic International Media Films
The film is still an inspiration to directors today

"Fellini made us all feel so comfortable," she says.

"He wanted people to be themselves so that would come across on screen. He wanted to take away the pretence and make it all real."

Dotted throughout the film's plot is a twin message of hope underpinned by despair.

For every joyous party attended by the make-believe A-listers of the day, there is a setback, a disappointment.

Love comes with death, beauty is accompanied by ugliness.

And all of it photographed by the ever-present paparazzi - the word itself made famous by the film.

Its themes were bold and original.

Infidelity, suicide, murder, depression were all interwoven with scenes of fun and happiness. Why? Because that is what life is like, Fellini suggests.

It was a life recognised by a then-rising starlet and now established icon in her own right, Sophia Loren.

Coincidentally, she has just been working on another tribute film to Fellini at Cinecitta, the studios in Rome where most of La Dolce Vita was filmed.

Now aged 74, she spoke with us for a few moments to reminisce.

"If I can still clearly remember it 50 years after it was made, that means it was special," she said.

She went on to say that she regretted never being in a Fellini film.

"He was the best, right up there," she said, pointing her finger to the ceiling.

"There was something magical about his films, the characters, the plots. Marvellous, marvellous, marvellous."

Heightened new world

It is not often a film can claim to have changed film.

La Dolce Vita did.

You can still trace its influences today in modern pictures.

Sophia Coppola was inspired enough by it to make her Oscar-winning film Lost in Translation.

Younger cinema-goers may no longer identify with it, most likely because so few are exposed to it.

It has aged, but in a complimentary kind of way.

Yes, the suits and the haircuts look faintly camp and of their time. But the obsession with materialism and celebrity give it a powerfully contemporary feel.

Fellini died in 1993 aged 73.

He made other films genuinely regarded as masterpieces, like 8 1/2.

But 50 years after he made La Dolce Vita, it is possible to look back on a movie that refashioned the way directors worked, characters were developed and plots crafted.

He gave us a heightened new world of shallow materialism framed by smiling faces and flawed people.

He offered us a kind of sweet life, but tempted us to enjoy its parody of real life.

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