t was on the outskirts of Rome in the back-room confines of an overheated studio hut that director Federico Fellini once told me he had no idea what to call a movie focused on a handsome gossip reporter who trawls the city’s promiscuous 1950s party scene furtively hoping to stumble on some sign of greater human purpose. Fellini eventually called it “La Dolce Vita,” an irony-drenched phrase that means the sweet life or the good life. But his real aim was to expose the absence of sweetness by poking surrealistic fun at the hollow theatrics of church and state.
Though awareness of Fellini has diminished over the years, his la dolce vita phrase has not. It took on a life of its own as an English-language synonym for Italy’s ineffable loveliness. Reports and essays have continually tied Rome, and Italy, to “the sweet life,” either in awed appreciation or to hammer home the contours of some precipitous fall.
Writing about recession and youth unemployment in 2013, British novelist and Italian expat Tim Parks objected that Italians “continue as if nothing were happening, or as if a small glitch in la dolce vita could be fixed with the wave of a wand.”
In a recent column, the Financial Times‘ Simon Kuper spoke of “well-dressed locals” on a “sun-dappled autumnal morning,” only to conclude, “While Italy sinks, people keep up appearances.” It was headlined: “How Italy lost la dolce vita”.
Poetic license is a handmaiden to journalistic showmanship. The trouble comes when irony is recast as literal to conjure up a country that never existed, either in Fellini’s time or at any other (imagine a “La Dolce Vita” as “La Vita Ingrata”).
Yes, Italy has superb weather, particularly Rome. And yes, the Latin barometer still values stylishness. That, to some, may seem sweet, along with cappuccino froth. But to imply Italy has somehow lapsed from once-sweet heights makes no sense.
After the fall of fascism in 1943, Italians killed other Italians in an underreported sliver of score-settling brutality that lasted nearly a decade. Until the Marshall Plan-assisted 1950s boom, bike-riding Italy was poor, industrially retrograde, and low on literacy. Banditry and organized crime ruled the south (and still can). The early 1960s introduced prosperous omens but also produced spasms of social unrest that fortified the already powerful Communist Party.
Workers long stuck in 19th-century conditions gradually acquired a fairer shake (which they’re now loathe to part with), but any understanding of social responsibility remained rickety. Divorce was all but impossible until mid-1970s laws. In 1976, The Times of London labeled Italy “the poor man of Europe” (along with England). Middle class growth produced layers of radical resistance and a 10-year outburst of urban terrorism that peaked in the first six months of 1978 when some 1,500 terrorist acts led to the deaths of 11 policemen and 12 high-level teachers, judges and politicians, included a former prime minister.
The country’s secular tilt — a Socialist became head of government for the first time in 1983 — ushered in a second wave of dolce vita-style hedonism now remembered only as a poisoned appetizer to 1990s corruption probes that showed a country in which legal and criminal life coexisted. The Economist labeled Rome political life as “malevolent.”
In 1992 underworld violence resurfaced spectacularly. Two anti-Mafia prosecutors were slaughtered in Sicily. In 1993, almost half of the 700-strong Italian parliament was investigated for alleged corruption or underworld ties.
In 1994, a Time Magazine columnist wrote, “Italians are embittered and profoundly skeptical of government leaders” (it also published a separate report mocking adults who still lived with their parents). In 2007, the New York Times described “malaise-ridden” Italy, then run by Silvio Berlusconi, as an “exquisite corpse, trampled over by millions of tourists.” Now it’s Kuper’s turn: “… many Italians seem to believe in nothing any more.”
In part, Italy attracts these kinds of endgame descriptions because critics start from a dolce vita baseline. Casually misreading Fellini, they invent a one-time state of sweetness on which to graft a Roman Empire-style fall, thus matching Italy’s own penchant for histrionic masochism.
Kuper is only the latest in a line of doomsayers who say exhausted Italy is in the clutches of hopelessness. But Fellini’s send-up of the sweet life focused its worry differently: it foresaw a future driven only by celebrity, vanity and greed. “La Dolce Vita” was prescient in a way that extended well past Rome.
Yet all is not nigh. Italy is somehow tethered to the spirit of Stephen Crane’s revelatory poem “In the Desert,” in which a man stumbles upon a squatting fellow who is busy consuming his own heart. The heart tastes bitter, the man admits. “But I like it because it is bitter,/And because it is my heart.”