British cinema-goers fall in love with Fellini's 'La Dolce Vita' all over again

The sight of a scantily clad Anita Ekberg splashing through the Trevi fountain in Rome conjured up a world of glamour and decadence that seduced cinema-goers and propelled the film's director to international fame.

Now Federico Fellini's stylish 1960 masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, is to be revived for a new generation after selling out at a film festival in London. The huge success of the National Film Theatre's Fellini retrospective this year, which saw hundreds of people turned away from packed screenings, prompted the film's UK distributors to produce a new print of the film for nationwide release from December.

La Dolce Vita is considered by many to be an all-time classic, defining a transition from the social realism of the 1950s and the breathless experimentalism of 1960s European cinema. It coined the word "paparazzo", for a sensation-seeking photojournalist, and brilliantly satirised the decadence of the glitzy, morally corrupt Roman society on which its main character - a young journalist played by Marcello Mastroianni - reports. It is a world in which alcohol and sex are the only values and suicide the only escape.

Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound magazine, said it had plenty of resonance in today's Britain: "In a world of Prince Harry and the paparazzi, this film works. There is a sense of decadence at the moment. Fellini captured a decadence of 40 years ago and we live in a world obsessed by glamour and celebrity.

"La Dolce Vita looks at the culture of Rome that the main character is wandering through and reveals it to be a constant party of surreal grotesques."

For Julie Pearce, who spent two years organising the Fellini season at the NFT, the film is a reminder of the golden age of cinema: "I think it's such a cool film. Most of Fellini's films have a glamour that is missing from a lot of contemporary films. They're like nothing around at the moment. They have a sense of escapism and they're really bold ... For bigger films like La Dolce Vita the queues were right out the door [at the retrospective]. People would turn up on spec even if they didn't book tickets and I even saw people crying here because they couldn't get in." The NFT Fellini season, organised with the Italian Cultural Institute in London, proved to be one of the most successful programmes in the NFT's 50-year history with more than 25,000 admissions.

Amanda Nevill, the BFI's director, said: "A whole new generation have seen Fellini on film for the first time, underlining the huge public appetite for classic cinema. "I am delighted that the BFI have helped ensure that the film can be distributed as widely as possible, bringing the genius and joy of Fellini to screens across the country."

The BFI has already produced a new print of another Fellini classic, I Vitelloni, which launched the two-month festival on 29 July at a special screening hosted by Anthony Minghella, the film director who is a Fellini fan and the BFI's chairman. I Vitelloni is also being screened during November and December in Plymouth, Bradford and Ipswich.

La Dolce Vita catapulted Fellini, already an arthouse name, to international fame when it was released in 1960. In the words of the NFT: "Almost overnight, the film's title became shorthand for stylish decadence and Marcello Mastroianni in his midnight shades an icon of cool."

But in recent years, in Britain, according to Mr James, Fellini has lost some of his cool. "His interest in theatricality has, in some people's eyes, tended to make him less influential but now I think he is coming back. His mixture of surrealism and realism and ability to mix and match styles and approaches is wonderful.

"There is an amazing flexibility, a mastery of the craft of cinema, of camera movement and music ... a wonderful mischievousness that perhaps you only see in someone like Almodovar nowadays.

"It is the film that most sums up the phrase Fellini-esque and Fellini is one of the few movie directors whose name is as big or bigger than the stars in his films. His cinema was the thing that was largely responsible for turning people on to European cinema," James said.

The new release, organised by the BFI in co-operation with UK rights holder Momentum Pictures, will be available for nationwide distribution, as well as additional screenings at the NFT, from December. Insiders believe it may be the biggest exposure that La Dolce Vita has had in this country in 30 years.