13 Sweet Facts About La Dolce Vita
For many people, Federico Fellini is practically synonymous with "Italian film" (or even "foreign film"), and his 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita is a big part of the reason. A hit with audiences and critics (though not the Catholic Church) as soon as it was released, La Dolce Vita fueled America's growing fondness for all things Italian, and made Marcello Mastroianni an international star in the "Latin lover" mold. To supplement your enjoyment of the film the next time you see it, here are tredici fatti.
1. IT'S WHERE THE TERM "PAPARAZZI" CAME FROM, THOUGH WHERE FEDERICO FELLINI GOT IT IS UNCLEAR.
In La Dolce Vita, Paparazzo is the name of a celebrity photographer, and this is indeed where the term "paparazzi" (the plural form) originated. But where did Fellini get it? In 1961, he told TIME magazine that the word "suggests to me a buzzing insect, hovering, darting," possibly as a corruption of "pappatacio," a bothersome mosquito. But years later, Fellini said it was a character name in an opera libretto ... though didn't say which opera. Furthermore, his co-screenwriter, Ennio Flaiano, said he got the name from George Robert Gissing's book By the Ionian Sea, in which it's the actual surname of a real person. Consider also: in Flaiano's native Abruzzi dialect, "paparazzo" is a kind of clam, the opening and closing of which could be said to resemble a camera's shutter. Like the paparazzi themselves, the word's pre-Fellini origins are difficult to pin down.
2. FELLINI BUILT ONE OF THE MAIN SETS AT HIS OWN EXPENSE.
Though there was some location shooting, most of La Dolce Vita was filmed on the grounds of Rome's legendary Cinecittà Studios. That includes the scenes set among the cafes of Via Veneto, even though the real Via Veneto was just a few miles away. Fellini tried shooting there, but he was only allowed to film from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., and even at those early hours, the production was hindered by onlookers and troublemakers. So he had his set designer build a replica at Cinecittà, which Fellini had to promise the producers he'd pay for out of his own cut of the movie's profits.
3. DINO DE LAURENTIIS WANTED PAUL NEWMAN TO PLAY THE LEAD.
The powerful Italian producer pushed for the American matinee idol to play Marcello the reporter, but Fellini wasn't having it. Newman, Fellini said, was too glamorous, and the kind of star that a paparazzo like Marcello would be chasing. De Laurentiis ended up withdrawing his support from the film, which some accounts attribute to this dispute.
4. SO MANY PEOPLE WANTED TO FINANCE THE MOVIE THAT FELLINI ALMOST TRIPLE-SOLD IT.
After De Laurentiis changed his mind, Fellini put the word out that he had a new movie he wanted to make and soon found himself beset by suitors. You can understand why: his previous film, Nights of Cabiria, was a very recent hit, and the new one promised salacious stories of the sweet life on Via Veneto. Fellini met with seven potential producers in the space of a few weeks, and in his usual fervor managed to make agreements with three of them before realizing his error and backing out of two.
5. AN ENTIRE CHARACTER WAS CUT OUT BECAUSE FELLINI COULDN'T GET ALONG WITH THE ACTRESS.
Luise Rainer, the first actor to win back-to-back Academy Awards (for The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth), had left Hollywood in 1940, but Fellini nearly lured her out of retirement to play a sexually voracious older woman who takes a liking to Marcello. Rainer had met Fellini while visiting Rome and agreed to take a role, sight unseen, as a result of her affection for Nights of Cabiria. But when she read the screenplay for La Dolce Vita, she didn't like how her role was written and returned to Rome to discuss it.
She and Fellini reworked the character into a muse who helps Marcello write his book, but they ultimately could not agree. Some accounts say Rainer refused to do the film because Fellini insisted on a sex scene between Dolores and Marcello; others say Fellini fired her because she insisted on rewriting her own dialogue. Whatever the case, Fellini deleted the character from the screenplay entirely.
6. THE SEQUENCE WITH THE VIRGIN MARY “SIGHTING” WAS A SEMI-IMPROVISED, LAST-MINUTE REPLACEMENT.
When negotiations with Luise Rainer broke down and Fellini excised the character and her subplot from the movie, he hastily substituted it with the vignette where crowds gather to see a supposed Virgin Mary miracle. The substitution was done so quickly that Fellini hadn't actually finished writing it, leaving him and the actors to come up with dialogue on the spot.
7. THE TREVI FOUNTAIN SCENE REQUIRED A LOT OF VODKA.
It took a week to shoot the scene (which only occupies a couple minutes of the final film), and it was in the cold early months of 1959. Anita Ekberg, the film's knockout female lead—and a native of frosty Sweden, which probably helped—stood in the frigid water for hours without complaint. But according to Fellini, Mastroianni had to wear a wetsuit under his clothes, and even then couldn't stand the cold water until he "polished off a bottle of vodka" and got "completely pissed." Hey, whatever works.
8. FELLINI AUDITIONED 5000 GIRLS BEFORE HE FOUND HIS PAOLA.
Paola is the teenager Marcello meets—first in a restaurant and again at the beach at the end of the movie, where she tries in vain to say something to him—who represents innocence in a culture of debauchery. Fellini tended to obsess over even minor casting details, so he was especially determined to find the perfect girl to play this important symbolic role (whose face is the last one seen in the movie, after all). Unable to find the right face among the actors who had submitted photos, Fellini held an open casting call that brought in 5000 hopeful teenage girls. None of them were right either, though, and filming began without a Paola. Finally, while having dinner at an old friend's house, Fellini found her: his host's 14-year-old daughter, Valeria Ciangottini. He hired her immediately.
9. IT WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE SCANDAL.
In 1953, a 21-year-old woman named Wilma Montesi was found dead on the beach near a fishing village, partially unclothed but not sexually assaulted, with no sign of foul play. But she was far from home, with no good reason to have traveled such a distance, and her death—murder, suicide, or accident—was never solved. The investigation, however, uncovered a host of shocking things going on among Italy's elite at an estate near where Montesi's body was found, including drug-fueled orgies and political corruption. Italy's foreign minister resigned when his son was implicated, and three people went on trial (all were acquitted). The scandal rocked Italy. The giant dead fish found at the end of La Dolce Vita was Fellini's way of evoking the incident and all the depravity associated with it.
10. IT WAS ALMOST AN EVEN DARKER FILM.
The film is a depiction of people having shallow, meaningless fun, punctuated by the shocking episode of Steiner's murder-suicide. Fellini actually filmed another sequence that would have added to the darkness, one where Marcello and Maddalena see a swimmer burned alive when a discarded cigarette ignites a pool of gasoline floating on the water. Thankfully, Fellini decided the movie was long enough without it.
11. WHEN IT PREMIERED IN MILAN, FELLINI WAS SPAT ON.
The sophisticated people of Milan did not care for La Dolce Vita, finding it (in the words of one writer) "long, not funny enough, and, worst of all, immoral." People yelled out "Shame on you!" (presumably in Italian) during the orgy scene, and booed when the movie was over. (To be fair, there were some cheers and applause, too.) As he exited the theater, Fellini was spat upon by an audience member. Others called him "coward," "Communist," and "atheist," sentiments echoed in the hundreds of telegrams he would receive in the coming days. Amusingly, Fellini had a cold at the Milan premiere and, under the effects of medication, "remember[ed] it as an entertaining evening."
12. ITALIAN CATHOLICS WERE TOLD TO BOYCOTT THE FILM; AMERICAN CATHOLICS WERE LESS STERNLY WARNED.
The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano denounced La Dolce Vita in the strongest possible terms, telling its readers to boycott the immoral, blasphemous film. (Predictably, this had the effect of making Italians even more eager to see it.) In the U.S., the Catholic League of Decency put it in the category of films that are "not morally offensive in themselves" but that one should be careful not to misunderstand. The American Catholics saw the film not as a celebration of hedonism but "a bitter attack on the debauchery and degradation of a hedonistic society."
13. IT'S STILL ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL FOREIGN FILMS EVER RELEASED IN AMERICA.
La Dolce Vita was a hit everywhere it played, including America, where its $6 million gross was a record for a foreign language film. At 2016 ticket prices, that $6 million becomes $75 million, enough to put it among the top five highest-grossing foreign films of all time.