La Dolce Vita Rip-Offs and Spiritual Remakes
While it was not his first film, La Dolce Vita (1960) was the film that started it all for Federico Fellini. His first international smash hit, the movie remains a giant of cinema to this day – a film so impressive it dwarfed the Trevi Fountain in comparison to Anita Ekberg’s on-screen presence. Its legacy is certainly well deserved. Beyond being visually stunning throughout, the themes it touches upon are universal. An insightful satire on the early 1960s economic boom in Italy at the time, La Dolce Vita is a dreamy commentary on how wealth cannot fix emotional bankruptcy.
The film follows journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) as he drifts through a veritable odyssey of new money, celebrities, parties, religious fanatics, intellectuals, and wannabes. Despite the fact that La Dolce Vita tends to be remembered in the collective consciousness as a symbol of the beautiful and care-free, the film is really more of a socioeconomic critique of these so-called beautiful ones. The sweet life portrayed is one of hollow selfishness – people defined by their money, or want of money, who can't understand why their luxurious lifestyles don’t actually bring them any real comfort. Of course, there's just the right amount of indulgence to let you see why these characters can't let go of their lifestyles either, but the excesses shown also serve to hammer home why you're better off without them. By the end of the film Marcello is lost to the magnetic pull of this void, so busy circling the drain he no longer has the ability to communicate with anybody outside of it.
Since La Dolce Vita premiered, we've been treated to so many versions and variations of this story, all with varying degrees of glitz and sadness. While there have been no direct remakes (Yet. There was some talk about it a couple of years ago but that seemed to have died down), there has been a pretty impressively diverse group of films that have been inspired by it. Since we love rip-offs and remakes here at Back Row, I figured I'd pull a Carlo and take a look at some films you may or may not have realized were actually La Dolce Vita rip-offs.
Just before the end of La Dolce Vita, there’s a scene where Marcello is at a house party and happens to meet a very drunk woman who’s from the same small town as he is. He then proceeds to publicly humiliate her, an abhorrent act that symbolizes his own self hatred and fears of acknowledging his past as a nobody. Cut to five years later, Antonio Pietrangeli's Io La Conoscevo Bene / I Knew Her Well (1965) is a movie about that woman. Not literally, but it is in essence; in many ways, I Knew Her Well is the more emotionally grounded and less comedic sister film to La Dolce Vita.
Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli) is a young woman who seeks meaning in fame because she doesn’t have the emotional or intellectual vocabulary to find it otherwise. She’s a simple girl who enjoys simple pleasures: listening to her records, sunbathing and dreaming. She moves to Rome in order to pursue a full time career as a model, but quickly finds that every person she encounters in the industry is just out to use her, screw her or exploit her. Adriana does her best to take it in stride but, despite her attempts to play the game, she only finds herself growing increasingly lonelier and more insecure.
I Knew Her Well is probably the most direct rip-off in its tone and pointed social commentary, which isn't to say it's not a unique and outstanding film on its own. Gorgeously shot and set to a perfectly ironic bubblegum pop soundtrack, I’d even go as far as to call it a highly underrated gem of cinema. Instead of showcasing yet another rags to riches fantasy, the film shows the audience a hard, cold reality that we rarely get to see on film: the brutal rejection that’s experienced by the vast majority of fame seekers. While Adriana is young and above average in looks, she’s also uneducated and naive, unable to truly break free of her caste as a nobody due to her desire to hold on to the tiniest shred of dignity. She spends a lot of time hanging around parties, dating men, and trying to get her name in the papers, but she’s lacking in whatever je ne sais quoi is necessary to truly make it–she’s unfocused in her sense of self and yet she’s unwilling to sell out at the same time. When a movie star tries to entice her to come home with him, a potential ‘break’ as far as climbing the social ladder is concerned, but she rebuffs his advances. The film does an excellent job shining a light on the burden put upon women like Adriana who dare to try and prove themselves in a man’s world. The pressures of being upheld to impossible standards of beauty and Madonna-whore complexes eventually prove to be too much for her.
Where Marcello sells his soul in order to better fit in, Adriana is swallowed whole and suffocated by her journey. She's caught between the woman she wants to be, the girl she used to be, and the insecure woman she currently is. What Adriana really wants, like many of the women we see Marcello interact with in La Dolce Vita, is to be acknowledged and loved. Her mistake is in trying to find that love through the public’s gaze instead of the gaze that stares back at her in the mirror. I Knew Her Well is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a rather ordinary woman with more depth than even she realizes she has. Warning, the ending will hit you like a ton of bricks.
Next we have the lesser known Woody Allen film Celebrity (1998), which presents us with two separate roads you could possibly take to navigate through the sweet life. Chock full of stars itself, Celebrity is about a journalist named Lee (Kenneth Branagh) who decides to rupture his sixteen-year marriage for want of a more glamorous lifestyle of chasing starlet tail. His now ex-wife Nicole (Melanie Griffith) suffers a nervous breakdown from the divorce, throwing her life into turmoil as she is now unsure of how to begin again in her forties. The film is a musing on celebrity, religion, and insecurity, all themes La Dolce Vita touches upon, and it’s also shot in black and white to boot. The party people in Celebrity are mostly portrayed as having a good time, but they certainly come across as flighty and shallow. (Donald Trump makes an appearance, if you want to know the type of company that’s being kept.)
In many ways, Celebrity shows us the more explicitly sex-obsessed side of the good life that La Dolce Vita implies but doesn't explicitly show. Where Marcello is notably impotent in fulfilling his wants and desires, such as the famous Trevi Fountain scene where his hands hover over Sylvia but never actually touch her, Lee can't seem to keep it in his pants. Lucky for him, every woman in this film is either sexually aggressive or looking to become such; from the model who orgasms when you stroke her kneecaps, to the movie star who states that while everything below the neck belongs to her husband, everything above the neck is fair game. Even Nicole feels she must boost her sexual prowess in order to stay appealing to her new boyfriend, asking a prostitute for a blow job lesson with a banana.
But Lee’s pleasure is short lived in comparison to his insatiable desire for more, a desire that’s inevitably stymied by his lack of impulse control and a general lack of direction. He says he’s a writer but he can’t seem to finish most of his screenplays or novels. When he does they don’t get great receptions, and it’s implied he’s not very talented. In a more Marcello move, Lee’s muse Nola (Winona Ryder), the woman he wants most to possess, is physically and emotionally unobtainable; a fact that both turns him on and scares him away. The weight of the chase crushes Lee, trapping him just as much as he claims his marriage previously did. But the film implies that he all but chooses to keep himself in that holding pattern by never self evaluating, only following the impulses he feels below the waist. Like Marcello, Lee is left to circle the drain of peripheral celebrity.
Meanwhile, Nicole manages to not only navigate through this world but to come out on top. That’s because she, unlike Lee, focused more on fixing her neuroses and hang-ups in order to evolve into her best possible self. With Nicole, Woody Allen shows us the hidden escape slide that others trapped in the pull of any such dolce vita seem to miss. Through making yourself the star in your own life, you can find true happiness and accomplishment. In the end, Allen, in the footsteps of Fellini, points the finger of blame not so much the concept of celebrity as those who try and use it as a crutch to some way to fix the voids in their lives. The true hero of Celebrity might actually be the off-screen psychologists.
Now stay with me here, next up is Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985). While some have described the film as a parody of The Bicycle Thief, I tend to think of it as more of an optimistic spin on La Dolce Vita. With its surreal, dream-like quality, Tim Burton’s film is far closer in imagery to Fellini than it is to De Sica. Nevermind that Danny Elfman's score is a blatant rip-off of Nino Rota's music, specifically as heard in Fellini's 8½. (To be fair, Rota’s influences here are also obvious and it’s not like Elfman hasn’t been up front about his influences during this time.) In fact, there are a handful of comparisons to be made between Pee Wee's Big Adventure and La Dolce Vita, from its episodic structure and use of symbolism, down to its own socioeconomic commentary. Where I Knew Her Well takes the theme and goes a bit darker, and Celebrity offers two possible conclusions, Pee Wee dips his toe into the pool, achieves it all and then rejects it in order to stay happy.
The film revolves around Pee Wee (Paul Reubens) searching for his stolen bicycle, the one item that brings him the most happiness in the world. His attempts to track it down leads him on an epic road trip through multiple states, as well as a variety of economic spheres. He tangles with tag-cutting criminals and train car hobos, then through the more blue-collar spheres of dish washers, biker gangs, and rodeos, ending finally in the glitz and glam of Hollywood. While on his quest, Pee Wee manages to make a meaningful impression on most everybody he encounters on the road, eliciting sympathy with his determination and sob story of love lost. Yet once his bike is within reach, held captive as a prop on a film set, he quickly finds himself at odds with everybody around him.
While kitsch is the name of the game here, there's a significant amount of screen time in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure that’s paid to the fakeness that money can buy. That economic disparity is a theme which is repeated throughout the film. His bike is stolen to begin with because his spoiled rich-kid neighbor is desperate to possess the happiness Pee Wee projects when around it. Then after Pee Wee recovers his bike on a Hollywood set, in the heartland of money and from a spoiled child star no less, he is chased by security through a series of film sets in the Warner Brothers backlot. He bikes through fake volcanos, fake north pole, fake beaches, a staged music video and even painted backdrops of the backlot itself in a montage scene that shows how every aspect of big budget movie magic isn’t real. Echoing Marcello’s struggles, Pee Wee is both drawn to and trapped in that shallow world, trying his best to make it out alive with his purpose (the bike) intact.
It's because Pee Wee has that sense of purpose, and the basis of knowing true love, that he manages to actually achieve the height of fame and fortune that everybody in the previously listed movies so desperately pines for. After a moment of truly selfless sacrifice (saving a bunch of snakes from a burning pet shop) that allows security to finally catch him, Pee Wee gets hauled in to explain his actions. Everybody is so impressed with his story that he becomes the inspiration for a blockbuster hit himself. But instead of becoming the P.W. Herman, muscled hero of the silver screen and a world so distanced from the truth that it’s virtually unrecognizable to the story we just witnessed, he actively rejects it for returning to the normal life he already knew. It’s the opposite route Marcello takes, who by the end of the film has so distanced himself from who he was that the final scene shows him in an outfit that is the exact inverse colors of his appearance in the first scene. But for Pee Wee, with his bike returned to him, he’s managed to escape the pull of the drain by staying true to himself.
Also just imagine that last scene of La Dolce Vita with the dead creature on the beach and the little girl, but instead of Marcello stick Pee Wee in there with the big fake ear. Perfect, right?
Other notable films that run parallel to La Dolce Vita: The Great Beauty (2013), Lost in Translation (2003), La Notte (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1962), Two Weeks In Another Town (1962)