Wine in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

marcello mastroianni

Tracie B and I have been taking it easy these days, staying in, cooking at home, and just enjoying these first quiet days and nights of 2010 in the last month of our lives together before we get married. :-)

Last night, Tracie B made an excellent dinner of boneless chicken breasts sautéed and deglazed in white wine with mushrooms (fresh cremini and dried porcini), wilted and sautéed curly-leaf spinach (slightly bitter and a perfect complement to the glaze of the chicken) and a light rice pilaf, paired with a 2005 Sassella by Triacca.

Triacca is actually a Swiss winery, located just on the other side of the border in Valtellina. I’ve not tasted its higher-end La Gatta, which sees some time in new wood according to its website, but I like the Sassella, which is vinified in a light, fresh style. (By no means a natural wine, btw, as many would think, since it’s imported by Rosenthal, but a real and honest wine, nonetheless.)


After dinner, as we continued to sip the Sassella, we watched Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), in my view, one of his most misunderstood films and not his greatest, although certainly the most famous in the Anglophone world because of its cross-over success and Fellini’s break from neorealism with this work.

I hadn’t seen the movie in years and although I don’t think it’s one of Fellini’s masterworks (in fact, I think it’s a bit heavy-handed, too engagé, and facile in some moments), I do think it’s a wonderful movie that gorgeously captures a fundamental moment — in its beauty and its ugliness — in Italy’s revival and renewal after the Second World War. (La Dolce Vita is more interesting, in my view, for the hypertexts it spawned than the movie itself, but that’s another story for another time.)

I must have seen the movie a thousand times and I used to teach it when I was grad student at U.C.L.A., way back when. But last night I noticed something I’d never noticed before: in the first true speaking scene (there is some dialogue in the first sequence, when Marcello and Paparazzo ask the girls on the roof for their phone number but the first dialogue, in the conventional sense, takes place in the second sequence, the second “episode,” and the first evening scene), Marcello asks the waiter at the night club what wine he has served to a celebrity couple. “Soave,” answers the waiter. And then, one of the transvestites interrupts him (I believe it’s Dominot) and corrects him: they had a Valpolicella, he tells Marcello.

It’s fascinating (at least to me) to think that in Fellini’s view, celebrities on the Via Veneto in the 1950s would be drinking Soave and/or Valpolicella (wines from the Veneto) when today we wouldn’t associate these appellations with luxury and status. It’s also fascinating to me that the screenwriter doesn’t seem to mind that the one wine is white, the other red. It’s clear that the wines are intended to be a clue to the status of the celebrities and that these details are intended to add color to the world in which Marcello moves.

There’s a subtext here and here is where you need to know Italian history to understand what’s going on and why these wines are significant. (So much of this movie is tied to this particular moment in Italian history and in many ways, it is more of a historical document than it is a pseudo-Freudian or anti-religious movie, as so many American scholars would like you to believe.)

Keep in mind: we are in Rome in the late 1950s and the scars of war were still very fresh in the minds of the characters (let alone the writers and movie-makers).

What was the connection between Rome and Valpolicella (think Lake Garda) that would be immediately apparent to the viewer (bourgeois or proletarian)? (Howard and/or Strappo, thoughts please…)

I’m taking Tracie B to the movies tonight. Guess what we’re going to see? ;-)

Buona domenica a tutti!

18 thoughts on “Wine in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

  1. Wonderful post – grazie!

    OK, I’ll take a shot.

    The wines are indicators of the celebrities politics:

    Valpolicella = Lago di Garda = Il Vittoriale = Gabriele D’Annunzio = Il Fascismo.

    Soave = Luciano del Cero = Partigiani/anti-fascismo

    LdC was also a filmaker, (died 1945) who started the first partigiani groups in Soave and who was incarcerated in Verona before dying in action…

    Does that work for you?

    • wow, Laura, ding ding ding… I wouldn’t say “shot” but rather “bull’s eye”!

      Honestly, I wouldn’t have made the connection between Soave and Dal Cero but I think you are on to something here! Well done!

      I’m certain, either way, that ordering a wine from Valpolicella or Soave in Rome during those years was a provocative gesture that evoked a memory of Salò and the Republic of Salò.

      Thanks for the truly excellent comment! :-)

  2. i dunno, maybe it’s as simple as this: soave and valpolicella were the wines of the time, and just as they were, a bit later, the italian wines of america. something recognizable for tutti?

    maybe i’m just being shallow, but perhaps not EVERY nook and cranny of this film is cluttered with symbolism.

    it was strange though, that a white and a red could be so easily confused by the server. maybe there’s something to be made from that.


    • @Tracie B yes and YES! The choices are very important because they tell us that a) Valpolicella and Soave (long before they dominated the American market) had already been marketed as “luxury” brands to Italians and that b) the Roman glitterati had no connection to locally produced wines (like Frascati, for example). And, yes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar: maybe the screenwriter was just using some contemporary color to make the scene seem more real (this is probably the case, I believe). One of the most fascinating things is how the sensibility about wine was so different…

  3. Years of practising tenuous literary criticism coming out here – chiedo venia! I will be asking anyone I can find over 85 what was out of their reach in the 1950s. Who knows what was being poured in Forte dei Marmi to celebrities in the 50s?

  4. JP, I wouldn’t have come anywhere near Laura’s amazing response/explication. I did get the Salo’ part though.

    As one who was happily traumatized by La Dolce Vita at 14, and who has seen it too many times to count, I will dare to correct you about the identity of the homosexual who gave Marcello Rubini the dope on the vino. It was Gio Staiano playing Pierone)) and he wasn’t a transvestite, just a garden-variety queer like yours truly. Gio was also present in Intervista, il Maestro’s reunion picture, although also without a credit.

    NB: I was just looking at the IMDB listing for La Dolce Vita. There was a performer with a very Valpolicellan name: Count Brunoro Serego Aligheri as “the young man in the mink coat”. From the heart of Garganego.

  5. Let me add something to your comment about this film. It is indeed a bit heavy-handed, a tendency Fellini indulged in more and more as time passed, but it is indeed wonderful document of the Italy that was rising from its wartime destruction to become something new and none too folkloric. I’m not sure what his best work is — Cabiria? Otto e mezzo? Satyricon? (I’m serious.) I don’t know. But La Dolce Vita is certainly his most inclusive film, epic even. In that sense it’s his most ambitious and, flaws and all, great for its dense historical and artistic allusions, the often brilliant vignettes and set pieces, and the camera work of Otello Martelli. (Not to mention Nino Rota’s musiche.) To say it’s imperfect is like saying The Decameron is imperfect — which is surely is. But it absolutely stands alone. It is infinitely rich.

  6. JP,

    I enjoyed your post on La Dolce Vita’s connection to the wines of the Veneto.

    One note about the wines of Triacca. The wines are from Italy, from the Valtellina in the Northern part of Lombady. They are that about as close to Swiss border without being Swiss. The owners are also Swiss. Also, I believe the La Gata does not see any time in new barrel. It is aged in older traditional large casks. They do make a Prestigio bottling that does see time in new wood.

    • @Neil you’re entirely right and I apologize for the confusion: the vines and winemaking facility are indeed located on the Italian side of the border. The family is Swiss and the company’s headquarters are in Switzerland (according to the site). The Gatta, according to the site, does see some time in small cask (and I’m assuming new wood): “circa un terzo invece della produzione viene conservata in piccoli fusti in modo da conferire a questo vino una rotondità ed una eleganza straordinarie.” Thanks for the clarification and for stopping by. I’m looking forward to tasting the wine one of these days.

      @Michele thanks for stopping by.

      @Strappo I think you commented on the wrong post! Thanks for the comment either way… :-)

  7. Apparently there is a Casa La Gatta aged in big barrels and a La Gatta Riserva aged in small and large barrels for 18 months.

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