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DVD Pick: "La Dolce vita"

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Today nearly everyone knows that the word "paparazzi" refers to those freelance photographers who doggedly pursue celebrities to take candid photos to sell to magazines and newspapers. But I suppose a lot of people don’t know that the singular of "paparazzi" is "paparazzo," which originally came into international usage because it is the last name of a minor character who does that job in Federico Fellini's "La Dolce vita" (1960).

In the movie, Paparazzo pals around with the cynical and jaded tabloid journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni). At one point, Marcello meets an exotic movie starlet (Anita Ekberg, playing a version of herself) and ends up with her in the waters of Trevi Fountain. I think Fellini’s genius in this sequence was to make the statuesque Ekberg look like a goddess.

Marcello is shown mostly in nightclubs and at soirees attended by the glitterati. The people he spends his time with are incredibly decadent. The final party in the movie celebrates the annulment of the marriage of an aristocratic woman. The guest of honor tries to liven things up by performing an impromptu striptease, only to be greeted by apathy, except for a couple of complaints that she is doing it wrong.

Mastroianni creates a character in “La Dolce vita” I find quite sympathetic, and I think the movie is very emotionally involving. The film’s story is downbeat, but Fellini keeps things lively with a variety of memorable scenes, including: the statue of Christ being flown by helicopter past ancient Roman ruins; Marcello and an aristocratic woman going to a prostitute’s seedy apartment for a sexual liaison; the media circus at the place where children claim to have seen the Virgin Mary; and the off-putting gathering of hoity-toity intellectuals, artists, and writers at Steiner’s picture-perfect home. In addition to Fellini’s stunning visuals throughout the film, there is Nino Rota’s evocative music on the soundtrack.

I believe some of the basic notions in “La Dolce vita” are just as relevant in the 21st century as they were back in 1960 when the movie was initially released: today television and glossy magazines offer a parallel world made up of entertainment figures, wealthy people, celebrities, and media events that bears little relationship to our everyday lives, and we seemingly can never get enough of it. I see “La Dolce vita” as a morality tale where Fellini shows Marcello being seduced and corrupted by that parallel world, and I fear there’s a bit of Marcello in all of us.

The “La Dolce vita” DVD provides a feature-length audio commentary by noted film critic and historian Richard Schickel which I found well worthwhile. He characterizes the movie as neorealism, despite the fact the Via Veneto sequences were shot out at the vast Cinecittà studio facilities rather than on the real street in central Rome. Schickel observes that the film consists of eight episodes where each begins on a night seemingly holding promise for Marcello, yet each episode ends in daylight with things having come out badly for him.

While the feature film on the “La Dolce vita” DVD looks and sounds terrific and the Schickel audio commentary is good, I found the extras on the bonus materials disc disappointing. There are five so-so featurettes, perhaps the best of which is the 12-minute “Remembering the Sweet Life” containing separate interviews with Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni. There’s also the four-minute “Cinecittà: La casa di F. Fellini,” which shows video of Fellini’s office to musical accompaniment. Another featurette is the six-minute “Fellini Roma Cinecittà,” where the famous director walks around Cinecittà talking about his love of Rome. The featurette “Fellini TV” runs about 35 minutes and contains 21 segments spoofing Italian television that Fellini decided not to use in his 1986 film “Fred and Ginger.”

I’ve listed all the special features of the “La Dolce vita” DVD set on the next page.

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