La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.

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Moulin Rouge (1952)

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Fine, absorbing and detailed chronicle of the life of Post-Impressionist legend, Toulouse-Lautrec, the crippled alcoholic whose paintings and lithographs of the Parisian demi-monde comprise the indelible imagery of the Belle Epoque (doesn’t every home have one of his posters?) Adapted from Pierre La Mure’s bestselling 1950 biography by Anthony Veiller, director John Huston is operating at his best, insisting on a muted palette in three-strip Technicolor (shot by the great Oswald Morris) to better mimic the tone of the artist’s own work, and getting a classic performance from stage legend Jose Ferrer, who had earlier won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac. His childhood years as the son of an aristocrat are well observed, with hunting scenes wonderfully conveyed – as one would expect of Huston, and echoed at a race track later on. The observations of his influences and the women in his life sharply delineate not merely his inspiration but how he applied materials to canvas and produced prints in the 1890s when his amazingly prolific art of raucous dance-hall culture made his name. The performances by the women here are excellent:  Colette Marchand as Marie Charlet, the prostitute whom he takes in and with whom he has a troubled relationship, almost culminating in his suicide when she reveals the reason for co-habiting with him; Suzanne Flon as Myriamme Hyam, the socialite he rescues on the Pont Alexandre, leaving her lover Peter Cushing (what an astonishing shot when he first sees her!); Katherine Kath as the once-famous dancer at the Moulin Rouge, now no longer a place for outcasts; Claude Nollier, terribly touching as the painter’s understanding and kind mother; and Zsa Zsa Gabor, immortalised of course as Jane Avril, and for whom this role is a terrific showcase. Ferrer is brilliant in a role which required him to perform on his knees using pads, and platforms, and he also plays his own father. The final scene is a valediction and a benediction.This is a model of the biography film, a classic of the period and a wonderful tribute to an incredible artist. Huston’s direction (and co-writing) is superlative, with the choreography of the infamous can-can having massive influence, including on Bob Fosse. All together now …!