With Italian neorealism rising in popularity following Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Will Tremble) and Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero and Rome, Open City, the cinematographic movement was yet to reveal Federico Fellini’s undeniable genius when I Vitelloni, his third feature-length film, justly placed him in the international spotlight with an unexpected Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Despite being a genre feature, it also showcases a paradigm shift, leaving behind a genre which was much more focused on drama, concern for the social welfare of the less-privileged classes, and ideologically-charged questions around labour and exploitation. Fellini moves away from all that to develop a dramatic style which, in a way, can be considered to be closer to Frank Capra’s Hollywoodesque style.
I Vitelloni introduces us to a group of five friends, all comfortably settled in a cushy middle-class lifestyle with plenty of pleasure and zero cares. However, Moraldo, Alberto, Fausto, Leopoldo and Riccardo’s party and skirt-chasing lives are turned upside down when they find out Sandra, Moraldo’s sister, is expecting a baby – Fausto’s, to be precise. The pair gets married under duress and leave to start a new life full of daily life responsibilities – no matter how hard the young man tries to ignore them.
Fellini brought several characteristics of his personal life to the script; the title I Vitelloni came directly from an insult from an elderly woman who disapproved of his prankster behaviour. A ‘vitellone’, usually translated as ‘veal’ or ‘calf’, implies an immature, lazy person with a purposeless life – or, as Fellini put it, ‘the unemployed of the middle class, mother’s pets’. Having achieved a more mature outlook on youth, I Vitelloni dispenses plenty of morality. The boys’ thoughtless actions often hurt third parties, highlighting the chasm between the older generation, who look after the values and morals which separate them from the callow youths.
The youths, lacking in finding a sense of meaning to their lives, mask their melancholy through full-blown escapism. This is one of Fellini’s trademark signatures – that defining and confusing moment which separates the ‘to be’ from the ‘not to be’. We follow people who don’t fight, don’t try – ultimately, don’t exist. Some of them want to go further, like the aspiring artist who spends his nights writing failing plays. Others get trapped in pits of debt, passionate and naïve women, and continue to waste every opportunity life offers them.
Despite the complex subject matter, Fellini manages to handle the narrative and direction with a smooth technique; there’s little exposition in dialogue and repetitive or redundant situations are far and few between. In fact, his only sin may well be to extend certain moments for longer than necessary. There are a number of intelligent touches, such as Moraldo’s meetings with Guido, a 13-year-old boy who already works at the train station. Moraldo, as his own name indicates, carries the burden of morality, and is distraught by his life’s emptiness – though he also turns to escapism to solve (or ignore) his problems.
Even though there are five main characters to work with, Fellini dedicates a fair amount of time to Sandra and Fausto’s relationship and the latter’s neglect of his family due to being a womaniser. Although it’s a cliché that’s been used over and over again, there are some finer details which Fellini tunes to perfection, such as Fausto’s epiphany or the hypocritical in which he deals with Sandra, a clear prisoner of her husband’s ego, who forbids her the smallest of luxuries, be it a quiet cinema trip or a mere sandwich.
Fellini’s aesthetic is also budding in what is his second feature film as a solo director. A connoisseur of classic technique, he brings refinement to his compositions, some of which exquisitely capture life’s mundane beauty, such as the scene in which a disabled man caresses the statue of an angel. The off-screen narration is brought to life, however, like in other neorealism works, it fails to describe what is happening, or even what’s visible to the naked eye. Another attention-grabbing moment for the then-young director’s style happens right at the start of the film, in which he makes use of a point-of-view shot to illustrate Sandra’s sickness during a party. Going as far as breaking the fourth wall, Fellini continues with that shot for the fainting scene, creating something poetic and surprising. Inventiveness is seen again towards the emotional ending, in which Fellini uses brief tracking shots to simulate a character’s departing look.
(That’s okay, I know you weren’t planning on sleeping tonight anyway)
I Vitelloni ultimately reminds us how history tends to repeat itself, even though it’s often forgotten; it’s an unusual tale of morality with hints of advice which, nevertheless, grants a welcome modern touch in providing a good balance between drama and comedy, underpinned by Oscar-winner Nino Rota’s (The Godfather) superb score. Through short bursts of inconsequential youth struggling to find itself between hedonism and duty, Fellini created an eternal work of art and mother of all ‘slacker films’, showcasing what was already happening in 1953, had happened countless times before, and will continue to happen.
I Vitelloniis now available in the UK, through CultFilms, in Dual Format (Blu-Ray & DVD, as well as digital platforms). Special features include an exclusive video essay by author, critic and Oxford professor Guido Bonsaver titled ‘Becoming Fellini’, new HD restoration and regrading with additional further restoration, and new improved English subtitles.
Dir: Federico Fellini
Scr: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli
Cast: Alberto Sordi, Franco Fabrizi, Franco Interlenghi, Leopoldo Trieste
Prd: Lorenzo Pegoraro, Mario De Vecchi, Jacques Bar
DOP: Carlo Carlini, Otello Martelli, Luciano Trasatti
Music: Nino Rota
Runtime: 103 minutes