November 23, 2008


The Roman 'orgy' that kicked off La Dolce Vita: It's 50 years since the Fellini film that defined an era. Peter Popham reports (Independent, 23 November 2008)

[Olghina di Robilant] threw her party in Rugantino, a trattoria in Trastevere, and one of the guests was the commissar of the local police station.

"The party was going very nicely when Peter Howard said to me, 'Come and see who's sitting at the bar.' It was this woman caked with make-up like a clown and wearing very little clothing – an Armenian dancer called Aïché Nana. I said, 'I don't remember inviting you' – and she ran to the dance floor and started dancing by herself, a thing nobody did. Then Anita Ekberg, the Swedish film star, arrived, without Fellini, though I had invited him, and Anita on the dance floor started pulling down her suspenders. And then the Armenian woman started stripping, and suddenly the flash bulbs were popping and the police commissar said, 'Stop her!' and I said 'You're the policeman, you stop her!' So he did, and they threw her out. The commissar made the photographers hand over their film. And then the party resumed and went on until six in the morning."

But one of the photographers hung on to his shots of the striptease, and next morning Olghina woke up to find the papers screaming about the "Roman orgy at Rugantino's". "It was quite untrue," she said, "but it took on a life of its own and went on like a tsunami."

The photographer was called Tazio Secchiaroli. Thanks to Cinecittà, the film production studios on the east side of the city, Rome had become a popular location for Hollywood films, and the foreign stars and writers began hanging out in the bars of Via Veneto. "My father was a news photographer," says Davide Secchiaroli, "but he and a few friends decided to go to Via Veneto and photograph the stars there." His work documented the city's unique mix of aristocratic tradition, religious superstition and celebrity glitz – and then he ran into Fellini and it was a meeting that changed everything. Fellini put him into his film as the jobbing snapper Paparazzo – the coinage that named an entire tribe – and his random daily patchwork of jobs became the film's narrative frame.

"The reality was first photographed by my father," says Mr Secchiaroli, whose father died in 1998, "then transformed by Fellini's great imagination."

Aïché Nana's striptease is immortalised in the film, but perhaps the most famous scene is that in which Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg wade at night into the waters of the Trevi Fountain. This, too, was borrowed from life. "I was the first to dive into the fountain," boasts Olghina di Robilant. "It was November and freezing. I didn't have two pennies to rub together, and one of my friends said, 'I'll give you 10,000 lire if you jump in.' So I just dived in, grazing my nose on the bottom, and it inspired the scene in the film."

It's too bad we tend to avoid Fellini and Bergman because of their later work when the earlier is so good. The justifiably lauded film, La Dolce Vita depicts to devastating effect the emptiness of the era of carnality that was only just beginning. Significantly, the Rome of the movie is not one from which the sacred has been banished, but one in which it is omnipresent but unembraced. Bergman's Winter Light is its Northern cousin.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2008 8:45 AM
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