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Finding La Dolce Vita in Rome

“Discovering the film’s surviving spirit in Rome”

When I go to Rome, I rarely miss an afternoon at Harry’s Bar. As much as I try to drag myself from the leafy Via Veneto, guiltily seated next to the business-lunchers and the tutto-Fendi teenage socialites, I am drawn to this affluent, sleepy, boulevard. At first, there’s a nagging sense that I shouldn’t be here. “Too nice for me,” I think, as I watch the waitress uncork a bottle of champagne for the gent opposite (it’s before noon.) Then she arrives again with another cold drink, this time to my table, and places it over a paper coaster. I take a swig, light a cigarette, and watch the cars and shoppers pass by. I’m at ease again. Those afternoons at Harry’s Bar are important to me; part of a small make-believe tradition I enact on each visit to Rome: to follow in the footsteps of Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita

Fellini’s movie was first shown to me at school, on one of those grey, wet English days that are ripe for the imagination. The glamorous scenes of him in his chic black suit, prowling the Via Veneto, drinking, smoking, and gossiping with his friends on Roman terraces left an impression that follows me on each visit. I wanted to dive into the television and sit among them, in that glitzy, swinging period of Rome. Harry’s Bar is where the actor’s troubled journalist, ‘Marcello Rubini’, spends most of his time. It’s also, I think, the first bar I dreamed of going to as a teenager. 

The place hasn’t changed much since the sixties, which is perhaps why it has lived up to those boyish expectations. The rococo walls and ceilings probably seemed antiquated when Mastroianni drank here, with spats of marble, honeycomb wood, and teal that give the impression of being inside a sweet sponge cake. The barman is dressed impeccably and is often miserable, in a way that I find utterly charming. And his bar looks as if it were designed for gentlemen in dinner suits and women in cocktail dresses to flirt with one-another, ordering their ‘regular’ (whatever that is) and having him deliver it to them on the terrace. If I squint and face toward the sometimes-crowded entrance, I can see all of those people from Fellini’s Rome come to life: Mastroianni, Paparazzo, Anouk Aimée, and those not in La Dolce Vita but who frequented the bar on their holidays, like Truman Capote and Belmondo. It’s a scene I try to manifest into reality, every single time. 

On my first visit, many years ago, I was worried that it wouldn’t satisfy these expectations; that it would be a sad place, with an air of faded glamour. I wasn’t exactly their usual type of customer either. As a penniless student, I made a list of locations from La Dolce Vita, and for Harry’s, I decided to fully act out the role: copying Mastroianni’s look by bringing a vintage black suit from eBay to be worn on the terrace (looking back, it makes me cringe a little). When I arrived, I took a seat, ordered a twenty-euro Bellini — a lot of money for a student — and set aside the rest of my daily budget for suppli, or a cheap panino from Conad

The panino aside, it was probably my happiest afternoon. For an hour, I could pretend that I was a character in my favourite movie, even if I was one of the extras, or had only made it to the deleted scenes. Rome does that, just like London and New York and Paris. Before you arrive in these famous cities, you bring a library of references, and with enough imagination, the city shapes itself to those expectations, and not the other way around. Harry’s isn’t the best bar on earth (it’s probably not even the best bar in Rome), but it conjures the world of La Dolce Vita for me. Eventually, that first visit was cut short when the waitress realised my one cocktail was lasting suspiciously long. But by the time I returned to the little hostel in Trastevere, I could hear Nino Rota’s soundtrack (specifically the haunting Notturno o Mattutino) echoing in my ears; and I became happily drunk on the illusion of it all. 

I sometimes feel guilty for chasing that illusion. For trying to avoid the real world, and for seeking out the old one in such a posh, bourgeoise neighbourhood. There’s no doubt the service is wonderful at Harry’s, and that the cocktails are marvellous, but it’s nothing particularly dynamic. There are no award-winning mixologists. It just happens to be the setting from my favourite film, with an atmosphere that I find enchanting. Before getting off the bus at the end of Via Veneto, I often hesitate and wonder if I should be seeing another side of Rome that afternoon; perhaps the fashionable cafes in Pigneto I hear about, or go on an urban adventure in Monti. “Who,” I think, as I stare at this emptying road, with its 1930s architecture and fashion boutiques, “comes here on their Roman holiday?”

After making a pilgrimage to many of La Dolce Vita’s sites, I’m sure it’s because none transport me to that era as vividly as Harry’s. When people think of the film, they often go to the Trevi Fountain, a grand, ornamental monument that ambushes you from the preceding streets. But standing there sometimes feels like sharing an iPad with a thousand other tourists. It’s a reality check. There’s a quick glimpse; a nudge on the shoulder; someone trying to sell a selfie-stick; and the battling newlyweds imposing themselves on the fountain for Instagram, as though they are topping a wedding cake. In the film, the Trevi scene is shot at twilight, with Anita Ekberg gliding through the water like a swan. Sad Marcello trails after her, in pitch silence, as though a hex has been placed on the fountain, locking it still in time. But I can’t even imagine the silence as I stand there now. The thousands of other tourists and I are all here fighting to own a moment in time. But very few of them will share those that I make at Harry’s – those are mine.

It might sound a little selfish, but discovering La Dolce Vita’s surviving spirit in Rome is an obsession I’ve had since I first saw it as a schoolboy, and few places have preserved its world like Harry’s does. Approaching the Via Veneto still fills me with the same sense of nervous, youthful wonder as the first time (although, I’m now much less likely to be wearing a black suit.) Who knows? Perhaps I’ll grow out of it. Maybe one day – when I’m no longer fascinated by all the old world glamour, or hear Nino Rota’s piano as I walk back from Harry’s – I’ll finally make it to one of those new cafes in Pigneto everyone keeps talking about.