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Forty-four years ago, we didn't quite know what we were seeing. Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" all seemed so very foreign back then -- about the "sweet life" of journalists, celebrities, celebrants and orgiasts in Rome, all either craving or giving attention or defining decadence. It's a movie that begins with a statue of the Madonna hung from a helicopter and flown garishly over the Eternal City; and a movie that features an impossibly buxom Swedish actress (Anita Ekberg) ostentatiously splashing around in the Trevi fountain. Marcello Mastroianni wanders wryly through it all with the corrupt and genial complicity of a visitor to the circus.

It all looked like the next step in Italian neo-realism back then. Little did we know that in his utterly extraordinary genius, Fellini was also prophesying for us what almost all the public world in the West would look like four decades later -- with fame, corruption and professed belief seemingly connected by unbreakable bonds and all blessed by universal decadence. What Pauline Kael once described as "the sick soul of Europe" seems like the everyday stuff of American public life now.

It's an even greater film than we knew. And a newly spiffed up print of it will be showing for a week in the North Park Theater, 1428 Hertel Ave., beginning today.

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