TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 February 2015
I vitelloni (1953) is Federico Fellini's first masterpiece, the film which put his name on the map as a director of significance. It triumphed at the Venice Film Festival and was widely admired abroad. It is the final film in what Fellini expert Peter Bondanella calls his `Trilogy of Character'. The first (Variety Lights ) was co-directed with Alberto Lattuada and the second (The White Sheik ) was a sophisticated comedy. Both are very good, but were box office failures and it was with some relief that I vitelloni at last hit the jackpot so enabling the following La strada (1954) and Le notti di Cabiria (1957) to be made. These two films won Oscars for Fellini and together with the astonishing success of La dolce vita (1959) catapulted him into iconic celebrity status, his name becoming a global phenomenon.
The `Trilogy of Character' focuses on willfully eccentric characters and the clash between the public role (the 'face') they have to maintain to get along in society and their more authentic real selves as expressed (or exposed) through fantasies, ideals, dreams and instincts. To this end Fellini plays `false' sober propriety up against the `true' liberating fantasy of make believe. In Variety Lights it is the fantasy of the variety theater, in The White Sheik the romantic escape of photoromanzi (photo novels of actors playing in exotic Arabian Nights-type adventures). In I vitelloni, Fellini puts before us scenes in a beauty contest, a cinema, a carnival and a variety theater, which expose character flaws in a group of 6 young men stuck in a provincial seaside town. These people are indolent wastrels, refusing to work, leeching off their families and drowning in self-inflicted lassitude. The etymology of `I vitelloni' refers to `large gut' (nonproductive person prone to stuffing himself), or a cross of beef and veal meaning `immature lazy young person without a clear identity or any notion what to do with his life'. The vitelloni all put on airs of respectability, but encounters with fantasy worlds makes it clear they are merely ridiculous. The film constitutes a great jump in maturity on the previous two films. The White Sheik is dazzlingly made, but the montage Fellini deploys there relegates the characters to unbelievable two-dimensional caricatures that can only exist on screen. Cinema technique masks reality rather than showing it accurately. In I vitelloni technique is always at the service of theme and never obscures it. The film focuses on a group of very real fully-rounded young men emoting real feelings that audiences even today can identify with. For this reason the film has had an enduring influence down the years on directors such as Barry Levinson in Diner, George Lucas in American Graffiti and perhaps most notably Martin Scorsese. His Italian-American films inhabit the same milieu of I vitelloni albeit transposed to New York. This is evidenced in films such as Who's that Knocking at my Door (1967), Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980) and Good Fellas (1990). Mean Streets is a virtual remake which even features some of the same camera shots, while Good Fellas lift's Fellini's voiceover introduction of the vitelloni at the beginning for a scene where gangsters are introduced in a bar.
Although there are 6 vitelloni, we only really get to know three of them well. The `spiritual leader' of the group is Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), a provincial Casanova who imagines himself to be sexy and sophisticated, but is actually selfish and base. He dominates the narrative and in each of the set piece make-believe scenes we see him unmasked as the immature spoilt brat that he really is. The film's opening beauty contest introduces Fausto's girlfriend Sandra (Eleonora Ruffo) as the beauty queen while he eyes up another girl. Turns out Sandra is pregnant with Fausto's child and his father forces him into a shotgun marriage when his real desire is to simply run away. Back from his honeymoon and in a cinema with Sandra, he brazenly flirts with the woman sitting on his other side. He promptly deserts his wife hoping to get his end in. Failing, he returns back to the cinema, his wife having been left alone to wait for him. Later he is given a job working in a shop selling religious artifacts. He doesn't notice the wife of the shop-owner until the carnival reveals her beauty to him and he later gets fired for coming on to her. Then later backstage of a variety show performance he meets a dancer, who this time he succeeds in bedding, only returning to his wife and family in the early hours. Fausto plays the family man, the honest shop worker, the good father, but each social occasion sabotages this 'face', revealing him as a ridiculous flake. Fabrizi is superb in this role, carrying our amused sympathy (and the film with it) even when he does the most despicable things.
The second vitellone is the most ridiculous of them all. Alberto (Alberto Sordi who was The White Sheik) lives off the earnings of his sister Olga who also supports their mother, the father having deserted them. He pretends to be the master of the house, but is simply a pompous dead weight. He upbraids Olga for damaging the family name by carrying on with a married man while he drags the family name in the mud by refusing to work and leeching off the family's sole bread-winner so he can go gambling. His big come-uppance comes at the carnival where he gets drunk. Dressed up as the big fat woman he actually is, he dances with a giant plaster head and (only because he's drunk) utters the only true words he says throughout the film: "Who are you?...You're nobody. You're all nobody!...All of you. All." He addresses the words to himself just as much as his friends and when he finally lurches back home he finds his sister on the way out with her boyfriend. From now he has to look after his mother on his own. His woman's dress contrasts with the manly attire of his sister who up until this point has been the rock of the family. The implication is doom for the mother and himself, unable (unwilling) as he is to get up and find a job. Sordi is brilliant here, especially when he flips the bird at a bunch of construction workers as he drives past in a car. The car breaks down not far down the road and hilariously he has to run for his life as the men take pursuit. Sordi would have made an excellent Zampanò in La strada, but was to be disappointed when Fellini chose Anthony Quinn over him.
Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste who we saw play Ivan in The White Sheik) is the quiet and introspective poet of the group. A writer, he imagines himself a Hemingway big game hunting in Africa. Unfortunately he is a purveyor of pap and his aspirations are merely pipe dreams. He faces his moment of reality at the variety theater when he meets the `famous' actor Sergio Natali who agrees to hear a reading of one of the great poet's dreary plays. Natali pretends to listen, but proves to be a homosexual who only wants to engineer a quicky with Leopoldo under the pier on the beach. Trieste plays Leopoldo with a quiet dignity which contrasts with the brash show of social propriety in The White Sheik, but he is shown as no less foolish than his friends, and no less in need of changing his life and grasping some responsibility.
Two of the vitelloni are virtually ignored in the film probably because they are surrogates for Fellini and his brother. Riccardo Fellini plays a character actually called 'Riccardo' and we must assume that the film's narrator (the first time for Fellini to deploy voice-over narration) is Federico himself. The director grew up in Rimini, a seaside resort not dissimilar to the town in this film and we must assume the film amounts to a poetic account of his childhood days, though obviously he didn't want to get too personally revealing (such modesty is lacking in later films which freely parade his dirty dreams for everyone to look at!) and kept both his brother and himself in the shadows. In his excellent book on Fellini (The Cinema of Federico Fellini [Princeton University Press, 1992]) Bondanella says there are only five vitelloni and moots the last member of the group Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) as the possible narrator, but look closely at the scene on the beach when they are walking and we count five without Fausto who is on honeymoon.
Moraldo watches over the three key characters (and we presume the two hidden ones) and functions as the film's conscience. He may be no less indolent than his friends, but their inadequacies are writ large in his comparative innocence as he functions as a cipher for the audience. He is Fausto's brother-in-law and is compromised by covering for his infidelities and lying to his sister. He is also dragged into theft as Fausto exacts revenge on his former employer. In addition Moraldo is the one who escorts Alberto home from the carnival and witnesses his final embarrassment, and of course he is present as Leopoldo embarrasses himself in front of Natali. Moraldo is given two scenes with a young boy who reflects his innocence in perhaps a gesture towards neo-realist convention where adult cruelty is pointedly contrasted with the reactions of children. These conversations seem insignificant, but are the only moments of genuine feeling in the film completely absent of either `face' or make believe. They lead into the film's natural conclusion which is that Moraldo is the only one who gets up the courage to leave the town and start life afresh.
In the film's conclusion we first meet the ambiguity that will become a Fellini trademark. In the following trilogy of redemption or grace (La strada, Il Bidone, Le notti di Cabiria) all the characters find a certain redemption wherein they seem to find God, but actually this is never made explicit. The sacred and secular are interchangeable and we are not sure if the characters actually improve or not. The same applies with I Vitelloni. One reading would be that Moraldo sees the pathetic waste inherent in his group's lifestyle and seeks to break away. This suggests a certain character drive and a belief that he can change things for the better. The problem is we see no sign of this drive anywhere else in the film. He gets on the train not knowing where he's going or what he's going to do. He deserts his family and friends without telling anyone and a second reading of his departure could be that he is simply running away from his responsibilities rather than staying and dealing with them. The flight could be seen as a symptom of the prevailing social illness that grips the group rather than a cure. Interestingly, the first draft of the script comes firmly down on the side of the second view with Fellini damning his characters completely for their idleness. He made the change however, perhaps realizing that audiences would respond better to an ending that was less finite and which reflects real life more accurately. It would become his mantra throughout his career as he became infamous for narratives which refuse pat explanations. Arguably, this got out of hand in his later extravaganzas which verge on incoherence and self-indulgence, but all his films prior to La dolce vita have disciplined narratives deeply bedded within the characters involved and are all the better for it.
The film making technique deployed in I vitelloni seems to be much less flashy than the complicated montage of The White Sheik. However, look closely and we notice the camera barely stands still. Slow complicated tracking shots dominate the film with the show piece social occasions (especially the wonderfully-shot carnival) coming beautifully alive. The camera seems to be at one in sketching out these characters and making them so believable. Of course the performances here are fabulous and help Fellini, but the subtle treatment of the camera (take a bow Otello Martelli), the deployment of voice-over, the odd use of subjective shots which startle because they jar with the fixed point of the narrator's perspective, and the deeply affectionate, but also deeply critical depiction of a particular social milieu with older characters featured as a barometer against which the actions of the vitelloni can be measured, are all deeply impressive and make for a profoundly moving experience. The famous shot at the end as Moraldo rides away on the train as the camera subjectively portrays his farewell to his friends by gliding over their beds as they sleep is the icing on the cake. All in all, I vitelloni stands as one of Fellini's very best and is mandatory viewing.
This is a review of the Nouveaux Pictures DVD. There are no extras except the usual trailer and picture gallery, but the picture is pristine (aspect ratio 4:3) and extremely beautiful with the sound properly restored.