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Book Review: To Each His Own Dolce Vita

To Each His Own Dolce Vita by John Francis Lane Cambridge, UK: Bear Claw Books, 2013 Cinephiles of recent vintage may not immediately recognize the name John Francis Lane, but his face will certainly be familiar to devotees of Italian cinema. Lane had supporting roles or cameos in many of the most important Italian films of the 1960s and early 1970s, including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 ½ (1963), and Roma (1972), and Pasolini’s La Ricotta (1963, a segment of the anthology film RoGoPaG) and The Canterbury Tales (1972). Of course, his experience goes beyond films by internationally renowned auteurs: he also appears in genre fare like Maciste all’inferno (1962, known Stateside as The Witch’s Curse) and Lucky Luciano (1973). But while Lane now has recognition for his participation in these films, it is as a cultural correspondent, journalist, and film critic that he really makes his mark. To Each His Own Dolce Vita is Lane’s memoir of his first 15 years as an English expatriate in Rome, where he was uniquely poised to chronicle the ups and downs of a particularly turbulent period in the Eternal City’s history. Lane was born in Orpington, a suburb of London, but never quite felt comfortable there. Quickly realizing that his ambitions in the arts were not compatible with the regimented austerity of postwar Britain, he left for Paris, where he studied French and film. By 1950, however, he had traveled to Rome, which was to be his material and spiritual home base over the next two decades. By the time of his move, Lane had already contributed to Sight & Sound, and was soon to be appointed the Rome correspondent to Films & Filming, for whom he would cover festivals and the rise of neorealism during the 1950s. Meanwhile, he covered news and celebrity events for the News Chronicle, eventually graduating to more prestigious publications like The Times. He is still active today, writing obituary, memoir and appreciation pieces for The Guardian, many about Italian friends and acquaintances. Amidst Lane’s adventures in film and the arts are frequent struggles with poverty—the life of a freelancer has never been secure, though Lane seems to have kept in work most of the time—and very frank discussions of his sexual liaisons. Lane, who realized he was gay at an early age, pursued many men over his years in Rome. While he did find a long-term partner by the 1970s (and thus avoided the worst of the worldwide panic over the emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s), To Each His Own Dolce Vita is as much about his relationships in the context of a largely traditional and heterosexist culture that made being fully out difficult. Lane offers several points of comparison between himself and Pasolini, whose taste for crime and the borgate contrasts with Lane’s interest in soldiers and police officers. The most fascinating parts of this book concern Lane’s experiences working in the film industry. He was more than a journalist and actor of bit parts. He occasionally moonlighted in publicity (he was responsible for selling the English press on Barrabas [1961], the Dino DeLauretis-produced, Richard Fleischer-directed Biblical epic) and spent a great deal of time preparing the English language version of La Dolce Vita at Fellini’s request. While Lane admits that this version is partially a failure, it did feature the excellent talent of Kenneth Haigh and attempted to correct some of the problems of the circulating subtitled print. Lane’s association with Fellini was varied: Fellini treated him coldly for not receiving La Strada (1954) with rapturous applause, counted him as a key collaborator during the whole saga of La Dolce Vita, and was later a bit perturbed over Lane’s lukewarm thoughts on 8 ½. It is fascinating to read about Lane’s association with Luchino Visconti—despite finding the director’s films admirable, he was kept at arm’s length. Lane appears in Antonioni’s L’Aventura (1961) in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him insert shot. He was friends with Antonioni and Monica Vitti, often hosting them for meals, and worked with Antonioni in a slightly more involved capacity on L’Ecclise (1962), about whose production Lane was commissioned to write a book. Film scholars might also delight to know that Lane translated Marie Seton’s biography of Eisenstein into Italian. One sad, though I suppose characteristic, anecdote relates to the legendary production of Cleopatra (1963), in which Lane was initially cast to play Bacchus. However, upon learning that Lane was a journalist, and could thus potentially file clandestine copy, Richard Burton, then famously embarking on an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, had him fired off the film. Although Lane got his promised pay, Burton’s paranoia kept him from appearing in what is now regarded as one of the most serious and indulgent flops in movie history.

John Francis Lane (center) in Pasolini's THE CANTERBURY TALES

To Each His Own Dolce Vita is a generally breezy read. Lane’s years of writing and acting have made him an adept communicator and a fine storyteller. I would have liked to have read a bit more about Lane’s childhood and experience of wartime Britain, though given his stated desire to leave that life behind, one cannot blame him for skipping those bits. Also, Lane’s writing and acting after 1965 are mentioned where appropriate in the text, but a more formal list of appearances and significant pieces as an appendix would be nice (after all, given Lane’s style, readers will likely want to make a trip to the library and track down some of his pieces). Thankfully, Bear Claw Books are likely releasing an anthology of writings (including some from Lane) from Films & Filming, what was once arguably the finest film appreciation periodical in Britain. I believe that Lane also wrote for Films & Filming’s sister publication, Plays & Players, and it would be nice to be directed to some of those articles. Kevin M. Flanagan