IN THE YEARS following the end of World War II, the people of Italy began a slow but steady crawl beyond the economic and political oppression they’d faced during Mussolini’s reign. With a little help from the Marshall Plan, which fed $1.2 billion into the country’s coffers, rebounding textile and automotive industries, and a democratically-elected government, the nation was well positioned for a welcome boom time.

During that period of political stability and financial prosperity, popular culture within Italy’s capital city began to flourish, with a rising international profile for Roman fashion designers and filmmakers. These artistic achievements form the core of Shawn Levy’s new nonfiction work Dolce Vita Confidential. Over 400 spirited and frothy pages, the Portland author carries us on a speedy Vespa ride through the decade that brought to life such vital works as La Strada and Umberto D as well as the rise of those pesky photographic gnats—the paparazzi.

Written by the former film critic for The Oregonian and the author of such books as De Niro: A Life, it’s no surprise that Dolce Vita focuses primarily on the movie industry and the stars that came out of it. Levy walks us through it all, pointing out important landmarks along the way: the late-’40s birth of neorealism, the rebirth of massive film studio Cinecittà after its unceremonious bombing by Allied forces, the many Hollywood productions that used Rome as a backdrop, and the ’50s and ’60s rise of auteurs like Fellini and Antonioni. We also spend some time in the welcome company of Italian movie stars like Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, whose splashy lives fed gossip columns around the world.

Bouncy as the text can get, Dolce Vita doesn’t breeze by. Levy savors the details of these years and the personalities that blossomed within them, and with clarity and zeal, conveys why their work is still important to modern audiences. Even at its most lurid (a diversion into the well-publicized trial of a young woman is unnecessary), the book delights, with the author inviting us to share in his wide-eyed wonderment as he asks, “Who wouldn’t want to be among them, to witness the birth of a modern way of living... to make history where the very idea of making history was practically invented?”

Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome
by Shawn Levy