LA DOLCE VITA
‘Even the most miserable life is better than a sheltered existence in an organized society where everything is calculated and perfected.’ Federico Fellini.
Federico Fellini created cinematic mythology with his cause célèbre film, La Dolce Vita. It was released in the early sixties, soon after the post-war austerity of the fascist era had ended and the new economic prosperity was at its peak. To contribute to the boom, American cinema makers brought floods of money as they flocked to Rome to make blockbuster extravaganzas such as Quo Vadis, Ben Hur and Cleopatra. Cinecittà was renamed ‘Hollywood on the Tiber.’
La Dolce Vita’s glamorous description of Roman decadence set a trend. The depiction of an Inferno costumed as a Paradise revealed the spirit of an era. The theme of an empty society driven by fame for fame’s sake portrayed the life of would be actors, impoverished aristocrats, dandies, fashionable intellectuals and paparazzi. The word ‘paparazzi’ is, in fact, an eponym of one of the characters in the film, a photographer named Paparazzo.
Rome had always been seen as a place of culture and history, but it was La Dolce Vita that made it sexy. It made the Romans feel that they lived, at least vicariously, in the caput mundi — the capital of the world. From far and wide people dreamed of enjoying those orgies, dressing in those elegant suits, driving those convertibles, listening to that music, and bathing in the Trevi Fountain. The city was imbued with the style of the movie. The turtle-neck sweater became known as a ‘dolce vita’, Felliniesque became a commonplace term, large sun glasses were de rigueur.
Sports cars and Vespas sprinted down the Via Veneto and its crowded cafes. Harry’s Bar and Café de Paris were the most popular as they featured in Fellini’s film. Outrageous parties where the sex count was high, and events challenging work principles and social obligations were now the way to squander time during Rome’s long, hot summer afternoons (in the mornings we slept) and nights. Il dolce far niente — the sweet doing nothing — had always been a philosophy dear to the Italian heart, and now this carefree idleness, this loafing about and just hanging out had been fully embraced.
I came to Rome in 1961 to participate in this glitzy circus, and soon found work in well paid commercials such as Cinzano, Coca Cola and Stilla eye drops. Small parts in various insignificant Italian films whose names have long escaped me, started pouring in. I was now a ‘starlet’ and my life was sweet.
Unless I was seeing my agent, buying colourful outfits in fashionable boutiques or having my hair and nails groomed for photo sessions, my day would involve getting up late, paying my landlady for a bath and then lunching with friends amongst the beautiful people at Il Piccolo Mondo. This trattoria of simple decor and great food in a back street off the Via Veneto was the favourite eating places amongst the film pack. I was delighted when the proprietor asked me for my autographed photograph to be squeezed amongst the head-shots of the famous (and the ones on their way to the top), which adorned the restaurant’s white-washed brick walls.
Next came the leisurely walk to drink a strong espresso at Rosati in Piazza del Popolo. This was followed by a stroll through the Via Margutta — la strada degli artisti (the artists’ street) — to view outdoor exhibitions by the fashionable painter Novella Parigini and other in vogue artists. From there, up the azalea-lined Spanish Steps to the courtly lawns of Villa Borghese for an afternoon’s siesta under the shade of the ancient gingko biloba that had been imported from China centuries ago.
Most evenings I ambled up and down the Via Veneto. Anybody who was anybody had to be seen and photographed by the hungry-eyed paparazzi. Then on to the Piper, or the 84 to hear Peppino di Capri belt out Neapolitan songs, and later to twist and cha-cha-cha at the Kit Kat. I was never home before sunrise unless my presence was expected on a film set.
Sometimes we skipped sleep altogether and in polished drop-head Alfa Romeos made our speedy way on the winding road to the sea. To Ostia or Fregene. There to lie on the soft sand, dip into the placid waves, nap under a striped sun-umbrella; or maybe make love squeezed into a thin changing cabin. Before heading back lunch was a must in one of the many beach-front restaurants. I devoured huge portions of freshly fried calamari followed by pasta with clams — pasta alle vongole.
I was courted by American film actors, by a curly haired, hot-eyed Sicilian prince who showered me with bouquets of roses, by English producers and young Italians eagerly on the make. Good times were being had, yet why was I so often crying my eyes out in my squalid little room? Because there seemed to be in me an ever present hurt. That feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere.
I went for an interview with Fellini — the magician, the maestro — when he was shooting the film Eight and a Half.
It had taken me hours to get ready. Trying on this and trying on that I finally settled on a pale pink close-fitting knee-length shantung skirt with jacket to match and white high heeled shoes. Not much make-up except for delicate Kohl-black streaks around my eyes. My auburn hair had been straightened the day before by my frequently visited, Grazia, ‘hairdresser-to-starlets’, as she liked to define herself.
Fretful, clutching my white handbag, large enough to hold my book of photographs, I waited where I’d been instructed to wait for him. Will I do? I’d die to be in his film.
Wrapped like a sheik in a flowing black cape and wearing his ubiquitous large-brimmed black hat, he bounded down a massive wooden staircase which was part of the outdoor set. We spoke for no more than fifteen minutes. The usual questions: “What films have you worked in?” I showed him my photographs. “You have an accent. Where do you come from?” I gave him a brief history. “I’m originally Croatian, but I’ve been living in Johannesburg. But now I’m here in Rome” He listened attentively, then with gentle, almost concerned voice he said: “You have the face of an angel; go home and get married before this business ruins you.” It was an elegant rejection, but I had no intention of going home. Wherever that may be.
‘There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life.’ Federico Fellini.
Although I always saw his new films I didn’t see Fellini again. Not until 1982, when I was standing at a bus stop in Rome. He was strutting down the street and as he passed by I saw him throw a look of interest towards me. I grabbed the moment and said: “Buon giorno, Maestro!”
“Buon giorno,” he held out his hand and in his well-known nasal tone asked with a friendly smile: “Do we know each other?”
“Sort of,” I said.
“Are you an actress?”
“Yes,” I said and introduced myself. At the same time wishing I’d bothered to wear something better than an old pair of jeans.
“You are very beautiful,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, wishing I’d put some Kohl around my eyes before going out. One never knows who one’s going to bump into.
“Do you have much work?”
“No, I don’t work nearly as much as I did in the early sixties.”
“What happened to you?”
“I got married, travelled a lot and didn’t take my acting career very seriously. But since I’ve been back now for some years, I’ve tried to pick it up. But it’s not easy.”
“No, we don’t make so many films any-more.”
I grabbed the moment again. “There is something I’ve wanted to ask you for twenty years, Maestro.”
“Oh?” he questioned with an amused grin.
I recounted our meeting in 1962, when he was casting Eight and a Half. And how he had told me I had the face of an angel and should go home.
“What I’ve always wanted to know, Maestro, is — what made you think that marriage was less likely to ruin a woman’s life than a film career?”
He shook his head smiling: “I can’t imagine. . .”
Just then a taxi drove by. He hailed it, asked me where I was going — but sadly our paths were taking us in different directions.
The next day I wrote to him, reminding him of our meeting at the bus stop, and sent several of my head-shots. But I didn’t hear back from him.
The final time I saw Federico was in November of 1993. I went to pay my last respects to him in Cinecittà where he lay in state in Studio 5. The famed studio where he always shot his great films.