VOLUPTUOUS AS ANITA EKBERG, ALLURING AS ANOUK AIMEE, and anguished as Yvonne Furneaux, La Dolce Vita enthralls with a colorful set of leading ladies lending vibrancy to its black and white scenes. Though only peripheral to Marcello Mastroianni's identically-named protagonist, each of the women portray their archetypes deliciously, and with distinctive flair. I spotlight these women, drawing attention to their wiles and ways, as well as the roles they play in a decadent and decaying media culture.
Most iconic of La Dolce Vita's ladies is Anita Ekberg as Sylvia. She is that buoyant figure descending from a plane, welcomed with camera flashes and a pan of pizza. Balancing a kitten on her head, she wanders Rome's empty midnight streets, and wades the Trevi in a ball gown. She is oblivious to Marcello's advances, sending him off to buy milk at what could possibly be 5am. Pure flesh even in greyscale, Sylvia's sensuality is undiminished even in the most absurd of scenarios. Anyone less blonde, buxom or beautiful would easily look inane.
Contrasting with Sylvia's effervescence is Maddalena: a dark and enigmatic heiress played by Anouk Aimee. Maddalena is considered to be Marcello's intellectual equal, although they are rendered disparate in social stature. They are lovers anyway. A woman of wealth and substance, Maddalena squanders her attributes on parties and promiscuity. Unlike Sylvia, who Marcello pursues, Maddalena is not pursued, but neither is she pursuer. "Predator" is more her style. The ultimate femme fatale.
Last, and in some ways least, is Marcello's fiancée Emma. Played by Yvonne Furneaux, she is rendered drab and undesirable in spite of her beauty. Emma is the one character in La Dolce Vita who offers Marcello emotional stability, yet he despises her "sticky, maternal love". His work as a tabloid writer provides him escape from her, as well as access to the cafe society he flounders in. Emma is grief-stricken and attempts suicide.
The three women may be tied together by Marcello, but I see their roles extend beyond romantic affairs. In La Dolce Vita's mid-century Rome, Sylvia, Emma and Maddalena are each either proponents or victims of the media-hyped sweet life, with Sylvia as the celebrity symbol of fantasy, Maddalena as a habitual consumer of the trivial, and Emma as an outsider suffering the undesirability of being so.
Over five decades later, La Dolce Vita's critique on media's superficiality feels just as relevant, although today's media feels nowhere near as glamorous. Perhaps the sweet life looks more appealing in black and white.
La Dolce Vita, 1960. Directed by Federico Fellini.