“I Vitelloni” - Federico Fellini (1953)

I Vitelloni (1953) was Federico Fellini’s second solo outing as writer-director and his first real critical and commercial success.  It tells the story of five young men who are perpetually hanging out and looking for amusement in a provincial town on the Italian coast.  The film’s title, I Vitelloni, could be understood to mean “young bulls”, but it also suggests young men who are overgrown adolescents avoiding life’s responsibilities.  One could argue that there are general social overtones in the way the fraternity of the gang reinforces the self-indulgence of the young men.  But as the film progresses, it become clear that this story is a personal and nostalgic reminiscence on the part of one of the gang members, Moraldo.    Thus though the film has a grounding in the Italian neo-realism tradition that examined social issues of the working classes, I Vitelloni operates from a more personal perspective as a coming-of-age comdey-drama about aimless youth.

The gang, the “vitelloni”, are

  • Fausto, the leader and “spiritual guide” of the group – his supreme self-confidence helps fuel his compulsive womanizing.  Interestingly, his appearance and mannerisms evoke the mental images of Elvis, Dion, and others of the 1950s, although this film appeared just before that period of rock-and-roll history.  
  • Alberto (played by Alberto Sordi) – he is a boastful attention-seeker and also something of an  overaged mama’s boy.
  • Leopoldo, the intellectual of the group – he fantasizes himself as an undiscovered great writer, and he spends his evenings working on his never-published plays and poems.
  • Riccardo (played by Federico Fellini’s brother, Riccardo) – he is a baritone who dreams of making it big in opera or show business.
  • Moraldo, the youngest member of the group – he is something of a male ingenue in this story.  Compared to the others, he is less assertive, but more sensitive and reflective.  Moraldo’s sister, Sandra, becomes the wife of Fausto.
All of them are unemployed, living at home, and sponging off their families.  Except for the younger Moraldo, they all appear to be thirtyish, but they evidently feel no urgency to burden themselves with workaday jobs.  What they want is fame and fortune, not the run-of-the-mill work with which their parents got bogged down.  So instead of working, they spend their time carousing around town, frequenting pool halls, and looking for ways to entertain themselves.

The episodic plot passes through roughly five stages, most of which are dominated by Fausto’s outrageous attempts to seduce any woman he encounters at close range.
  1. Miss Mermaid Beauty Pageant.  It is the end of summer, and the town holds its annual beauty contest, where the vitelloni are enjoying the show and Moraldo’s sister, Sandra, is declared the winner. Unbeknownst to the others, however, she has been knocked up by Fausto, who even at the same pageant is busy trying to seduce another woman. Fausto then tries to skip town, but his father forces him into a shotgun wedding with Sandra.
  2. Overview of the VitelloniWe see the individual members at their homes. Leopoldo works on his plays.  Alberto tries to dominate his sister, even though her salary supports him.  Fausto returns from his honeymoon and is pressured into accepting an uninspiring stockboy job at a religious curio shop.  After work while at the local cinema with his new wife, the incorrigible Fausto unsuccessfully tries to arrange a tryst with a woman sitting in the adjacent seat.
  3. CarnivalIt is time for the annual winter Carnival, which is a lavish masquerade ball and a setting for further inebriated carousing on the part of the gang members. This ten-minute sequence is the most visually encompassing and engaging portion of the film, since it captures the shared gaiety of the entire local community. Later at his curio shop, Fausto tries to seduce his boss’s wife and gets fired as a result.
  4. Leopoldo’s PlaySpring is coming, and a famous actor visits the town to hold a dramatic reading, much to the delight of the starry-eyed Leopoldo, who is thrilled that the actor appears interested in his compositions. But a little later Leopoldo is horrified and disillusioned to discover that the actor’s passion is directed towards Leopoldo’s body and not his mind.  Meanwhile Fausto sleeps with a member of the actor’s dancing troupe, which leads to Sandra running away from home with their baby.
  5. Looking for SandraThe gang members loyally follow the increasingly desperate Fausto around  as he searches for Sandra and the baby. Eventually he finds them at his father’s house, where his father finally delivers some old-fashioned  comeuppance. And once again the ever-forgiving Sandra takes him back.  Finally, a melancholy Moraldo decides that life in this town is too limited and departs on the train for a larger world as the film ends.
The narrative material for I Vitelloni is fairly lightweight, and yet Fellini’s stylistic touches helped make it one of his more popular and accessible offerings.  Part of this appeal is probably due to the sympathetic manner in which Fellini presents the vitelloni’s tomfoolery, which is considerably more easygoing than Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), a film inspired by I Vitelloni.  Most of the characters in I Vitelloni are borderline ridiculous, particularly the never-say-die lothario, Fausto, but for the most part they are likeable goofs.  Least likeable to me, is the Alberto character, and yet this film is said to have launched Alberto Sordi’s career as a famous character actor.  Alberto’s most memorable moment occurs when he gives an obscene fist-and-elbow (“umbrella”) gesture to some roadside workers as the vitelloni pass by in their car.  Alberto’s braggadocian mockery quickly backfires when their car suddenly breaks down, and the insulted workers deliver some physical payback.  But there is more to this film than Fellini’s general warm-hearted rending of a “rat pack” story, and in fact there are a few other Fellini touches that elevate I Vitelloni beyond the usual bildungsroman genre. 

One salient feature of the social milieu that Fellini portrays is the contrasting way that men and women treat members of their own gender.  The men in the film are unquestioningly loyal to their fellow group members – in fact much more so than they are to their own families. Moraldo, for instance, doesn’t stand up for his own sister in the face of Fausto’s blatant infidelities; instead he merely watches in silence and sticks by his friend.  Similarly, Alberto  tries to bully his own sister, but is always willing to go along with the gang.  What a contrast this is to the way Sandra’s girlfriends treat her after her wedding!  Although they greet their friend Sandra with syrupy sweetness, behind every complement is an insidious putdown.  Here, as in many places, the freedom-loving boys are  irresponsible, but still innocent puppy dogs; while the women, for whatever reasons, are much nastier to each other.

Another social feature that Fellini highlights and shows sympathy towards is the significance of  play, which is an insufficiently appreciated aspect of a man’s world.  Play gives a young person the chance to trial and experiment with different kinds of extended interactions – miniature narratives in controlled circumstances.  Playing is an important feature to the lives of all higher animals, particularly for the male of the species, and it seems to be linked to successful development.  For Fausto, the play is amorous seduction, for the others it often just lounging around in the pool hall.  But whatever the game, these guys quickly become bored and often need to be together to conjure up yet a new game.  The problem is that these little games are small, too trivial, and are not the real, extended narratives that should occupy the men.  Moraldo comes to realize this towards the end of the film – the endless game-playing is not going anywhere and not leading to anything.  He decides at the end to look for the extended narrative challenges in a wider world.

But what makes the film truly memorable are not the elements that I have discussed so far, but rather Fellini’s unique expressionist feeling of existential loneliness.  The visual expression of this mood would be stronger in subsequent Fellini works, but it is movingly present here, as well.  The sense of alienation and isolation is subtly conveyed by the film’s dreamlike evocation of memory.  Though realistic settings are used, the human characterizations in the film are presented in the exaggerated contours of how one remembers and refocuses one’s past experiences to highlight the emotional tones that were present.  This is how expressionism can resonate in the mind of the viewer and create a sense of separation from his or her surroundings.  This moody sense of being alone in the presence of others is supported by Fellini’s frequent use of harsh camera lighting and garish imagery.  Nino Rota’s musical score also fits in perfectly in the way it employs conventional band music that can have the effect of disengaging the viewer and accentuating a feeling of existential isolation. 

Moraldo is surrounded by friends who distract him from his loneliness, but he still wanders the streets late at night looking for what he knows not.  In the wee hours of the morning he sometimes sees a young boy, Guido, who represents to Moraldo his own lost innocence.  Guido is a working-class youth who has a job and seems content with his world.  In his winsome innocence Guido doesn’t question anything about his life, and Moraldo presumably wishes that he could somehow regain that lost connectedness with the world around him.  In the final images of the film, Moraldo says good-bye to Guido, and as the train pulls out of the station, the camera lingers on Guido playfully walking along the rails, without a care in the world.

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