In La Dolce Vita, we are given a glimpse of a filmmaker that has moved far neo-realist roots. While Nights Of Cabiria was certainly a departure from neo-realism, (and far less neo-realist than La Strada, which was just one picture before this one) it certainly had many more neo-realist elements (the plight of the poor and oppressed) than La Dolce Vita. La Dolce Vita would introduce us to a world almost never considered before in Fellini's films, that of the bourgeois, or upper-class. A film following a protagonist from party to party among the rich is practically a slap in the face to the neorealist movement Therefore it is often said that Nights of Cabiria marks the conclusion of the first phase of his career and La Dolce Vita the beginning of the next. I prefer to see his films as a continuous visual timeline of Fellini's artistic growth.
Both La Dolce Vita and Nights of Cabiria unfold in an episodic manner. While Nights Of Cabiria has a tighter, more traditional narrative structure, La Dolce Vita is practically a series of short films. The combination of these scenes is what leads to the complexity of the film's message. When it is asked of us, "What are these films about?" there really is no easy answer because they are about so much. Each passing episode carries a meaning of its own that adds to the overall meaning of the picture. Both films contain the typical Fellini clowns, ethnic performers, false appearances of the Virgin Mary, as well as other religious symbolism, nightclubs, prostitutes, stone houses by the sea, processions, and scaffolding outlined against the dawn. These may be symbolic or merely personal touches from his imagination.
I feel that it is necessary to discuss the visual aspects of these films. Both films are a huge leap, cinematically speaking, from his other films. Before Nights of Cabiria, little attention had been paid to the cinematic or visual aspect of Fellini's films. In Nights of Cabiria, Fellini establishes his first signs of commitment to emphasizing the film through pictures. Camera movement becomes more complex; camera composition becomes more important and symbolic. In La Dolce Vita, we have even more advanced use of the camera. Camera movement becomes so intricately choreographed it becomes almost like dance. The frame allows people to come and leave as they please, it follows people and then returns to the action, and it quite simply has a mind of its own. Great advances were also taken in the lighting in these two films. Nights Of Cabiria is really the first Fellini film where we start to see expressive or dramatic lighting. However, the overall color tone is mostly gray. In La Dolce Vita we become much more involved with rich blacks and whites. Fellini starts to experiment with the very dark lighting that he will later use so well in 8 1/2.
Both films start focused on our main character. Cabiria stands in the middle of a field, dwarfed by her surroundings. Marcello is spotted hovering above Rome in a helicopter while pursuing earthly desires. This reveals a great deal about the characters. Fellini has a fascination in exploring the dynamics between airborne (or heavenly), and earthbound imagery. The symbolism greatly reflects Fellini's intentions. Fellini's characters are trapped between earthly realities heavenly desires. Marcello is constantly descending and ascending stairs. He goes down into the prostitute's flooded basement; he chases Sylvia up a huge flight of stairs at St. Andrews....