Based on the most common interpretation of the storyline, the film can be divided into a prologue, seven major episodes interrupted by an intermezzo, and an epilogue (see also Structure, below). If the evenings of each episode were joined with the morning of the respective preceding episode together as a day, they would form seven consecutive days, which may not necessarily be the case.
1st Day Sequence: A helicopter transports a statue of Christ over an ancient Roman aqueduct outside Rome while a second, Marcello Rubini's news helicopter, follows it into the city. The news helicopter is momentarily sidetracked by a group of bikini-clad women sunbathing on the rooftop of a high-rise apartment building. Hovering above, Marcello uses gestures to elicit phone numbers from them but fails in his attempt then shrugs and continues on following the statue into Saint Peter's Square.
1st Night Sequence: Marcello meets Maddalena by chance in an exclusive nightclub. A beautiful and wealthy heiress, Maddalena is tired of Rome and constantly in search of new sensations while Marcello finds Rome suits him as a jungle he can hide in. They make love in the bedroom of a prostitute to whom they had given a ride home in Maddalena’s Cadillac.
1st Dawn Sequence: Marcello returns to his apartment at dawn to find that his fiancée, Emma, has overdosed. On the way to the hospital, he declares his everlasting love to her and again as she lies in a semiconscious state in the emergency room. While waiting frantically for her recovery, however, he tries to make a phone call to Maddalena.
2nd Day Sequence: That day, he goes on assignment for the arrival of Sylvia, a famous Swedish-American actress, at Ciampino airport where she is met by a horde of news reporters.
During Sylvia's press conference, Marcello calls home to ensure Emma has taken her medication while reassuring her that he is not alone with Sylvia. After the film star confidently replies to the barrage of journalists' questions, her boyfriend Robert (Lex Barker) enters the room late and drunk. To Sylvia's producer, Marcello casually recommends that Sylvia be taken on a tour of St Peter's.
Inside St Peter's dome, a news reporter complains that Sylvia is "an elevator" because none of them can match her energetic climb up the numerous flights of stairs. Inspired, Marcello maneuvers forward to be alone with her when they finally reach the balcony overlooking the Vatican.
2nd Night Sequence: That evening, the infatuated Marcello dances with Sylvia in the Baths of Caracalla. Sylvia's natural sensuality triggers raucous partying while Robert, her bored fiancé, draws caricatures and reads a newspaper. His humiliating remark to her causes Sylvia to leave the group, eagerly followed by Marcello and his paparazzi colleagues. Finding themselves alone, Marcello and Sylvia spend the rest of the evening in the alleys of Rome where they wade into the Trevi Fountain.
2nd Dawn Sequence: Like a magic spell that has suddenly been broken, dawn arrives at the very moment Sylvia playfully "anoints" Marcello's head with fountain water. They drive back to Sylvia's hotel to find an enraged Robert waiting for her in his car. Robert slaps Sylvia, orders her to go to bed, and then assaults Marcello who takes it in stride.
3rd Day Sequence: Marcello meets Steiner, his distinguished intellectual friend, inside a church playing Bach on the organ. Steiner shows off his book of Sanskrit grammar.
4th Day Sequence: Late afternoon, Marcello, his photographer friend Paparazzo, and Emma drive to the outskirts of Rome to cover the story of the purported sighting of the Madonna by two children. Although the Catholic Church is officially skeptical, a huge crowd of devotees and reporters gathers at the site.
3rd Night Sequence: That night, the event is broadcast over Italian radio and television. Blindly following the two children from corner to corner in a downpour, the crowd tears a small tree apart for its branches and leaves said to have sheltered the Madonna. Meanwhile, Emma prays to the Virgin Mary to be given sole possession of Marcello's heart.
3rd Dawn Sequence: The gathering ends at dawn with the crowd mourning a sick child, a pilgrim brought by his mother to be healed, but trampled to death in the melee.
4th Night Sequence: One evening, Marcello and Emma attend a gathering at Steiner’s luxurious home where they are introduced to a group of intellectuals who recite poetry, strum the guitar, offer philosophical ideas, and listen to sounds of nature recorded on tape. An American woman, whose poetry Marcello has read and admired, recommends that Marcello avoid the "prisons" of commitment: "Stay free, available, like me. Never get married. Never choose. Even in love, it's better to be chosen." Emma appears enchanted with Steiner's home and children, telling Marcello that one day he will have a home like Steiner's.
Outside on the terrace, Marcello confesses to Steiner his admiration for all he stands for, but Steiner admits he is torn between the security that a materialistic life affords and his longing for a more spiritual albeit insecure way of life. Steiner philosophizes about the need for love in the world and fears what his children may grow up to face one day.
5th Day Sequence: Marcello spends the afternoon working on his novel at a seaside restaurant where he meets Paola, a young waitress from Perugia playing Perez Prado's cha-cha Patricia on the jukebox and then humming its tune. He asks her if she has a boyfriend, then describes her as an angel in Umbrian paintings.
5th Night Sequence: Marcello meets his father (Annibale Ninchi) visiting Rome on the Via Veneto. With Paparazzo, they go to the Cha-Cha-Cha Club where Marcello introduces his father to Fanny, a beautiful dancer and one of his past one-night stands (he had promised to get her picture in the paper, but failed to do it). Fanny takes a liking to his father. Marcello tells Paparazzo that as a child he had never seen much of his father, who would spend weeks away from home. Fanny invites Marcello’s father back to her flat, and two other dancers invite the two younger men to go with them. Marcello leaves the others when they get to the dancers' neighborhood. Fanny comes out of her house, upset that Marcello's father has become ill.
4th Dawn Sequence: Marcello's father has suffered what seems to be a mild heart attack. Marcello wants him to stay with him in Rome so they can get to know each other, but his father, weakened, wants to go home and gets in a taxi to catch the first train home. He leaves Marcello forlorn, on the street, watching the taxi leave.
6th Night Sequence: Marcello, Nico, and other friends met on the Via Veneto are driven to a castle owned by aristocrats at Bassano di Sutri outside Rome. There is already a party long in progress, and the party-goers are bleary-eyed and intoxicated. By chance, Marcello meets Maddalena again. The two of them explore a suite of ruins annexed to the castle. Maddalena seats Marcello in a vast room and then closets herself in another room connected by an echo chamber. As a disembodied voice, Maddalena asks him to marry her; Marcello professes his love for her, avoiding answering her proposal. Another man kisses and embraces Maddalena, who loses interest in Marcello. He rejoins the group, and eventually spends the night with Jane, an American artist and heiress.
5th Dawn Sequence: Burnt out and bleary-eyed, the group returns at dawn to the main section of the castle, to be met by the matriarch of the castle, who is on her way to mass, accompanied by priests in a procession.
7th Night Sequence: Marcello and Emma are alone in his sports car on an isolated road. Emma starts an argument by professing her love, and tries to get out of the car; Marcello pleads with her not to get out. Emma says that Marcello will never find another woman who loves him the way she does. Marcello becomes enraged, telling her that he cannot live with her smothering, maternal love. He now wants her to get out of the car, but she refuses. With some violence (a bite from her and a slap from him), he throws her out of the car and drives off, leaving her alone on a deserted road at night. Hours later, Emma hears his car approaching as she picks flowers by the roadside. She gets into the car with neither of them saying a word.
6th Dawn Sequence: Marcello and Emma are asleep in bed, tenderly intertwined; Marcello receives a phone call. He rushes to the Steiners' apartment and learns that Steiner has killed his two children and himself.
6th Day Sequence: After waiting with the police for Steiner’s wife to return home, he meets her outside to break the terrible news while paparazzi swarm around her snapping pictures.
6th Night Sequence: An unspecified amount of time later, an older Marcello—now with gray in his hair—and a group of partygoers break into a Fregene beach house owned by Riccardo, a friend of Marcello's. Many of the men are homosexual. To celebrate her recent divorce from Riccardo, Nadia performs a striptease to Perez Prado's cha-cha Patricia. The drunken Marcello attempts to provoke the other partygoers into an orgy. Due to their inebriated states, however, the party descends into mayhem with Marcello throwing pillow feathers around the room as he rides a young woman crawling on her hands and knees. Riccardo shows up at the house and angrily tells the partiers to leave.
7th Dawn Sequence: The party proceeds to the beach at dawn where they find a modern-day leviathan, a bloated, stingray-like creature, caught in the fishermen's nets. In his stupor, Marcello comments on how its eyes stare even in death.
7th Day Sequence: Paola, the adolescent waitress from the seaside restaurant in Fregene, calls to Marcello from across an estuary but the words they exchange are lost on the wind, drowned out by the crash of the waves. He signals his inability to understand what she is saying or interpret her gestures. He shrugs and returns to the partygoers; one of the women joins him and they hold hands as they walk away from the beach. In a long final close-up, Paola waves to Marcello then stands watching him with an enigmatic smile.
In various interviews, Fellini claimed that the film's initial inspiration was the fashionable ladies' sack dress because of what the dress could hide beneath it. Brunello Rondi, Fellini's co-screenwriter and long-time collaborator, confirmed this view explaining that "the fashion of women's sack dresses which possessed that sense of luxurious butterflying out around a body that might be physically beautiful but not morally so; these sack dresses struck Fellini because they rendered a woman very gorgeous who could, instead, be a skeleton of squalor and solitude inside."
Credit for the creation of Steiner, the intellectual who commits suicide after shooting his two children, goes to co-screenwriter Tullio Pinelli. Having gone to school with Italian novelist Cesare Pavese, Pinelli had closely followed the writer's career and felt that his over-intellectualism had become emotionally sterile, leading to his suicide in a Turin hotel in 1950. This idea of a "burnt-out existence" is carried over to Steiner in the party episode where the sounds of nature are not to be experienced first-hand by himself and his guests but in the virtual world of tape recordings.
The “false miracle” alludes to the 1958 investigation discounting the claims of two children to have been visited by Our Lady in a farm at Maratta Alta, near Terni. The "dead sea monster" alludes to the Montesi affair, in which the dead body of 21 year old Wilma Montesi was discovered on a beach after an aristocratic orgy in April 1953.
Most of the film was shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Set designer Piero Gherardi created over eighty locations, including the Via Veneto, the dome of Saint Peter's with the staircase leading up to it, and various nightclubs. However, other sequences were shot on location such as the party at the aristocrats' castle filmed in the real Bassano di Sutri palace north of Rome. (Some of the servants, waiters, and guests were played by real aristocrats.) Fellini combined constructed sets with location shots, depending on script requirements—a real location often "gave birth to the modified scene and, consequently, the newly constructed set." The film's famous last scenes where the monster fish is pulled out of the sea and Marcello waves goodbye to Paola (the teenage "Umbrian angel") were shot on location at Passo Oscuro, a small resort town situated on the Italian coast 30 kilometers from Rome.
Fellini scrapped a major sequence that would have involved the relationship of Marcello with Dolores, an older writer living in a tower, to be played by 1930s Academy Award-winning actress Luise Rainer. If the director’s dealings with Rainer "who used to involve Fellini in futile discussion" were problematic, biographer Kezich argues that while rewriting the screenplay, the Dolores character grew "hyperbolic" and Fellini decided to jettison "the entire story line."
The famous scene in the Trevi Fountain was shot over a week in winter: in March according to the BBC, in late January according to Anita Ekberg. Fellini claimed that Ekberg stood in the cold water in her dress for hours without any trouble while Mastroianni had to wear a wetsuit beneath his clothes - to no avail. It was only after the actor "polished off a bottle of vodka" and "was completely pissed" that Fellini could shoot the scene.
The character of Paparazzo, the news photographer (Walter Santesso), was inspired by photojournalist Tazio Secchiaroli and is the origin of the word paparazzi used in many languages to describe intrusive photographers. As to the origin of the character's name itself, Fellini scholar Peter Bondanella argues that although "it is indeed an Italian family name, the word is probably a corruption of the word papataceo, a large and bothersome mosquito. Ennio Flaiano, the film's co-screenwriter and creator of Paparazzo, reports that he took the name from a character in a novel by George Gissing." Gissing's character, Signor Paparazzo, is found in his travel book, By the Ionian Sea (1901).
Marcello is a journalist in Rome during the late 1950s who covers tabloid news of movie stars, religious visions and the self-indulgent aristocracy while searching for a more meaningful way of life. Precisely, Marcello faces the existential struggle of having to choose between two lifestyles, namely depicted by journalism and literature. Indeed, Marcello on the one hand leads a lifestyle of excess, of fame and pleasure amongst Rome's thriving popular culture. Thereby, depicting the confusion and frequency with which Marcello gets distracted by women and power. On the other, a more sensitive Marcello aspires of becoming a writer, of leading an intellectual's life amongst the elites, the poets, writers and philosophers of the time. In the end, Marcello chooses neither journalism, nor literature. Thematically however, he's opted for the life of excess and popularity by officially becoming a publicity agent.
The film's theme "is predominantly café society, the diverse and glittery world rebuilt upon the ruins and poverty" of the Italian postwar period. In the opening sequence, a plaster statue of Christ the Labourer suspended by cables from a helicopter, flies past the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct. The statue is being taken to the Pope at the Vatican. Journalist Marcello and a photographer named Paparazzo follow in a second helicopter. The symbolism of Christ, arms outstretched as if blessing all of Rome as it flies overhead, is soon replaced by the profane lifestyle and neo-modern architecture of the "new" Rome, founded on the economic miracle of the late 1950s. (Much of this was filmed in Cinecittà or in EUR, the Mussolini-style area south of Rome.) The delivery of the statue is the first of many scenes placing religious icons in the midst of characters demonstrating their "modern" morality, influenced by the booming economy and the emerging mass-consumer lifestyle.
The most common interpretation of the film is a mosaic, its parts linked by the protagonist, Marcello Rubini, a journalist. The seven principal episodes are as follows:
- Marcello's evening with the heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée)
- His long, frustrating night with the American actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) that ends in the Trevi fountain at dawn
- His reunion with the intellectual Steiner (Alain Cuny); their relationship is divided into three sequences spread over the entire film: a) the encounter, b) Steiner's party, and c) Steiner's tragedy
- The fake miracle
- His father's visit/Steiner's Party
- The aristocrat's party/Steiner's tragedy
- The "orgy" at the beach house
Interrupting these seven episodes is the restaurant sequence with the angelic Paola; they are framed by a prologue (Christ statue over Rome) and epilogue (the monster fish), giving the film its innovative and symmetrically symbolic structure. The evocations are: seven deadly sins, seven sacraments, seven virtues, seven days of creation.
Other critics claim that this widespread view of the film's structure is inaccurate. Peter Bondanella, for example, argues that "any critic of La Dolce Vita not mesmerized by the magic number seven will find it almost impossible to organize the numerous sequences on a strictly numerological basis."
Critic Robert Richardson suggests that the originality of La Dolce Vita lies in a new form of film narrative that mines "an aesthetic of disparity." Abandoning traditional plot and conventional "character development," Fellini and co-screenwriters Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli, forged a cinematic narrative that rejected continuity, unnecessary explanations, and narrative logic in favour of seven non-linear encounters between Marcello, a kind of Dantesque Pilgrim, and an underworld of 120 different characters. These encounters build up a cumulative impression on the viewer that finds resolution in an "overpowering sense of the disparity between what life has been or could be, and what it actually is."
In a device used earlier in his films, Fellini orders the disparate succession of sequences as movements from evening to dawn. Also employed as an ordering device is the image of a downward spiral that Marcello sets in motion when descending the first of several staircases (including ladders) that open and close each major episode. The upshot is that the film's aesthetic form, rather than its content, embodies the overall theme of Rome as a moral wasteland.
Writing for L'Espresso, Italian novelist Alberto Moravia highlighted the film's variations in tone: "Highly expressive throughout, Fellini seems to change the tone according to the subject matter of each episode, ranging from expressionist caricature to pure neo-realism. In general, the tendency to caricature is greater the more severe the film's moral judgement although this is never totally contemptuous, there being always a touch of complacence and participation, as in the final orgy scene or the episode at the aristocrats' castle outside Rome, the latter being particularly effective for its descriptive acuteness and narrative rhythm."
In Filmcritica XI, Italian poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini argued that "La Dolce Vita was too important to be discussed as one would normally discuss a film. Though not as great as Chaplin, Eisenstein or Mizoguchi, Fellini is unquestionably an author rather than a director. The film is therefore his and his alone... The camera moves and fixes the image in such a way as to create a sort of diaphragm around each object, thus making the object’s relationship to the world appear as irrational and magical. As each new episode begins, the camera is already in motion using complicated movements. Frequently, however, these sinuous movements are brutally punctuated by a very simple documentary shot, like a quotation written in everyday language".
In France, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, film critic and co-founder of Cahiers du cinéma, felt that "what La Dolce Vita lacks is the structure of a masterpiece. In fact, the film has no proper structure: it is a succession of cinematic moments, some more convincing than others… In the face of criticism, La Dolce Vita disintegrates, leaving behind little more than a sequence of events with no common denominator linking them into a meaningful whole".
The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther praised Fellini’s “brilliantly graphic estimation of a whole swath of society in sad decay and, eventually, a withering commentary on the tragedy of the over-civilized… Fellini is nothing if not fertile, fierce and urbane in calculating the social scene around him and packing it onto the screen. He has an uncanny eye for finding the offbeat and grotesque incident, the gross and bizarre occurrence that exposes a glaring irony. He has, too, a splendid sense of balance and a deliciously sardonic wit that not only guided his cameras but also affected the writing of the script. In sum, it is an awesome picture, licentious in content but moral and vastly sophisticated in its attitude and what it says".
Film critic Roger Ebert considered La Dolce Vita as Fellini’s best film, as well as his favorite film of all time besides Citizen Kane (1941), and listed it consistently in his top ten films for the Sight & Sound Greatest Films poll every ten years. Ebert's first review for the film, written on October 4, 1961, was the first film review he wrote, before he started his career as a film critic in 1967. The film was also a personal touchstone for Ebert, in how his perspective of the movie and his life changes as time passes by, giving this summation in his 1997 Great Movie review:
Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw "La Dolce Vita" in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom "the sweet life" represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello's world; Chicago's North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello's age. When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal.
Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that from 58 reviews, 97% were positive; the consensus states: "An epic, breathtakingly stylish cinematic landmark, La Dolce Vita remains riveting in spite of—or perhaps because of—its sprawling length." On Metacritic, the film has a 93/100 rating based on 12 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
The film earned $6 million in North American rentals on original release. The film was re-released in North America in 1966 and earned $1.5 million in rentals.
Perceived by the Catholic Church as a parody of the second coming of Jesus, the opening scene and the film as a whole were condemned by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano in 1960. Subject to widespread censorship, the film was banned in Spain, until the death of Franco in 1975. Umberto Tupini, the Minister of Culture of the Tambroni government censored it and other "shameful films".
The New York Times described La Dolce Vita as "one of the most widely seen and acclaimed European movies of the 1960s". It was nominated for four Academy Awards, and won one for Best Costume Design: Black-and-White. La Dolce Vita also earned the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. Entertainment Weekly voted it the 6th Greatest film of all time.
In 2010, the film was ranked #11 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films of World Cinema".
As mentioned above, one of the characters (Paparazzo) is the inspiration for the popular term "paparazzi", a word for an intrusive photojournalist.
The 1961 movie Divorce Italian Style has the townspeople attend a screening of La Dolce Vita, while the main character (Marcello Mastroianni again) sneaks off to surprise his wife in flagranti.
Tributes to Fellini in the "Director's Cut" of Cinema Paradiso (1988) include a helicopter suspending a statue of Christ over the city and scenes in which the Trevi Fountain is used as a backdrop while Toto, the main character, grows up to be a famous film director.
Woody Allen's Celebrity (1998) is a New York–set re-working of La Dolce Vita with Kenneth Branagh taking up Mastroianni's role, and Winona Ryder and Charlize Theron taking on the roles held by Anouk Aimée and Anita Ekberg, respectively.
The Bob Dylan song "Motorpsycho Nightmare" contains the line, "Then in comes his daughter, whose name was Rita/She looked like she'd stepped out of La Dolce Vita."
The 2003 film Under the Tuscan Sun makes a reference to the water fountain scene in La Dolce Vita.
In Sofia Coppola's film Lost in Translation (2003), Kelly's interview for LIT resembles Sylvia's interview scenes in La Dolce Vita. Charlotte and Bob later meet in the middle of the night and watch the famous Trevi Fountain sequence while drinking sake. Coppola said, "I saw that movie on TV when I was in Japan. It's not plot-driven, it's about them wandering around. And there was something with the Japanese subtitles and them speaking Italian—it had a truly enchanting quality".
The 2013 Italian film The Great Beauty features a former writer who wanders through the parties of the Roman high society trying to decide what to do with his life.