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Remembering la dolce vita through turbulent times

Actress Anita Ekberg (PA)

You may have heard that Anita Ekberg, the former screen siren, has died, at the age of 83.

If she is famous for one thing, it is that scene, where she trails through the Trevi Fountain in her evening dress, cooing “Marcello, Marcello” to her co-star. Blonde, statuesque, with glowering good looks, as the Telegraph puts it, Ekberg, a former Miss Sweden, made that movie, which gave its name to an era in Italian history: La Dolce Vita.

La dolce vita was the relatively short period of the Italian Republic’s heyday, when, after recovering from the war, thanks to a huge injection of Marshall Aid, as well as subventions from the Americans designed to keep the Italian Communist Party from power, Italy became the wonderful place to be. It was the era of Via Veneto, of glamour, of beautiful women, and of course, a beautiful country looking its best. The film came out in 1960, at a time too when Italian design was at its height.

La dolce vita was succeeded by what were called gli anni di piombo, the years of lead, the dreadful period that was characterised up by bombings and kidnappings and political and industrial strife, as well as financial ruin. This was the epoch of the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades. In the years of lead, Italy became a country where nothing worked: a broken system, presided over by hopelessly corrupt and inefficient politicians. It was the years of lead that broke the heart of the Blessed Paul VI.

The passing of Miss Ekberg reminds us of the impossibly remote era of la dolce vita, and all that has come since. One feels, hearing of her sad death, a sense of nostalgia. It is reinforced by what we know Miss Ekberg had to put up with after that famous walk through the fountain in 1960: two tempestuous failed marriages, some very mediocre film parts, the loss of her looks, and, worst of all, the loneliness and poverty of old age and ill health. Poor Anita. But not just poor Anita. Poor us. The bright future that must have stretched before her and everyone else in 1960 failed to deliver.

Nostalgia is a most unchristian feeling, though like most feelings, if involuntary, morally neutral. It is part of the human condition perhaps to feel oneself permanently moored between la dolce vita, the Golden Age, and the years of lead. The good news is that Italy recovered from the Years of Lead and a new Pope, Saint John Paul II, inaugurated a epoch of hope and confidence in the Church. The eighties and nineties were better than the seventies.

It is quite possible that at present the whole western world is entering a new leaden age, in which case we would be wise to do two things. First, see how the Italians dealt with the years of lead, and in particular how they clamped down on the ideologues who inspired the terrorists. And secondly, have hope, in God, and in our ability to cooperate with his grace, and bear in mind those wonderful inaugural words of St John Paul: “Do not be afraid!”

As for Anita Ekberg, a girl from a strict Lutheran family, who found a home in the warm south where she was much loved, let us remember her in prayer. Sloshing through that fountain, she summed up an age. It is not given to many to do that. May her soul, and the souls of all the departed, rest in peace.