Fortunately for us, Judge Dan Mancini didn't shirk his grown-up duty of reviewing this Fellini film.
"The years go by, then one morning you wake up. Just yesterday you were a boy, and now you're no longer young."—Leopoldo
His third film, I Vitelloni finds Federico Fellini at an interesting place, a point of transition. His next feature, La Strada, is widely seen as the beginning of his unique style, the first time the visual idiosyncrasies and thematic preoccupations that would characterize his best and most famous work congealed in a single film. If Fellini is known for his fascination with the creative impulse, the subconscious mind, and the magnetic draw of erotic love, then La Strada wasn't the revolutionary shifting of directorial gears it's sometimes made out to be, but a logical next step from I Vitelloni.
Marxist critics savaged La Strada as an abandonment of neorealist principles, but as a director, Fellini was never really a neorealist to begin with. His connection to that school is almost entirely by way of the films he wrote for Roberto Rossellini (Open City, Paisan) prior to moving into the director's chair. I Vitelloni certainly isn't neorealist. It's a half-hearted imitation of that style at best, containing nearly all of Fellini's conceits, all of his gusto, but couching the subconscious musings in a realist context in order to make them easier for Italian audiences of the early 1950s to digest. I Vitelloni's annual carnival and vaudeville-style theater show settings provide a realist context for the flamboyant, absurdist, and circus-like visual imagery that make Fellini's films, well, Felliniesque. In his later films, he'd ditch the pretense of narrative cohesion and present such stuff as dreams or visions of pure cinema, but the fact his bizarre imagery is logically explained in I Vitelloni doesn't negate its presence in the film. However, it is true that, with the exception of those set pieces, I Vitelloni is a more visually static piece than we associate with Fellini. The familiar Fellini ideas and preoccupations are there, but his dynamic use of camera to express those ideas and preoccupations wouldn't begin in earnest until La Strada.
Facts of the Case
I Vitelloni is the tale of five life-long friends living in Rimini—Moraldo, Fausto, Alberto, Leopoldo, and Riccardo. Entering their thirties, the men are stuck in adolescence, rudderless, jobless, and harboring dreams of escaping their small town—dreams they never act on. When it's discovered Moraldo's (Franco Interlenghi, The Vanquished) sister Sandra, the newly-crowned Miss Mermaid of 1953, is pregnant, father-to-be Fausto (Franco Fabrizi, Nights of Cabiria) tries to skip town but his papa forces him to do the right thing and marry the girl. Marriage and impending fatherhood propel him into a job at a shop owned by a friend of his father, but do little to quell his wandering eye. Alberto's (Alberto Sordi, The White Sheik) extended childhood is cut short when his sister—who supports the household—runs away with her lover, forcing him to find work. Riccardo (played by Fellini's brother Riccardo) has talent as a tenor but wastes himself singing at local weddings. Leopolo's (Leopoldo Trieste, The Godfather, Part II) dreams of being a playwright are crushed by a bad experience with a famed actor. And Moraldo watches it all, as seemingly detached and shiftless as his buddies.
In America, I Vitelloni was originally released with the title The Young and the Passionate. Little more than a marketing ploy, that tawdry melodrama title may capture some of the surface goings-on of Fellini's film but it is mostly (unintentionally) ironic. A vitello is a calf, and let's face it, passion is not a trait we associate with the bovine. They're passive, immobile herd animals, perfect symbols for Fellini's five protagonists—listless do-nothings who can't find the momentum to make a go at life. Entering their thirties, they're men who wander aimlessly through life, propelled by external forces but rarely taking action of their own accord. Vitello also means veal, the calf after it has met its destiny, slaughtered and butchered and served up on the dinner table. Indeed, I Vitelloni presents five boys fattened up and ready to either enter new lives as adults or die a metaphorical death, their vitality sapped and potential forever unrealized.
If the gentlemen of I Vitelloni only act when acted upon by external forces, those external forces are usually the film's women. Fausto is tossed headlong into manhood by Sandra's pregnancy and the material demands inherent in supporting a family. He spends much of the rest of the film trying to straddle the fence between childhood and the world of adults, only to realize Sandra's needs require his complete abandonment of boyhood. He will have to choose, once and for all, the forward trajectory of his life. Fellini develops this idea with his trademark comic flourishes as when Fausto's father threatens to beat him with a belt upon discovering he's impregnated a girl out of wedlock despite Fausto's being well beyond an age at which corporal punishment is reasonable; or the way Fausto turns and waves sheepishly to his father when forced to take the job at the shop, as if he's being sent away to his first day in kindergarten. Alfredo also plays the comic fool when his sister leaves town. After having repeatedly warned his sibling not to make their mother cry, that he can't stand to see her cry, it is he who weeps and bemoans his fate, hung over and still in drag from the previous night's carnival festivities. Stasis ceases to be an option for Fausto and Alfredo because the women in their lives don't allow it. Throughout his entire body of work, Fellini's men struggle with their transition from son to father, from relating to women as mothers/providers to lovers who need provision based on their role as mothers to the next generation. Fellini uses Fausto and Alfredo to show us this mother/lover dynamic simultaneously from a variety of developmental stages. In later films—most notably 8 1/2—reality and the world of dreams intersect in complex ways in order to demonstrate the stages of the dynamic simultaneously in a single character, the fictional film director and Fellini alter ego Anselmi. In I Vitelloni, the ugly tangle of the mother/lover dynamic is played out most explicitly in Fausto's attraction to and flirtation with the wife of Mr. Michele, his boss at the shop. He's unable to articulate why he's drawn sexually to the matronly woman (she's certainly not the typical target of his affections based on what we see throughout the rest of the film), but we come to realize its because he's in this transitional phase, still a boy trying to dodge responsibility but also a husband and father. That he would seek solace in a woman who could be both mother and lover seems obvious. The fallout from his indiscreet behavior regarding Michele's wife pushes Fausto toward having to actively and consciously choose childhood or adulthood, setting the stage for the final resolution of the character.
For Fellini, the artistic drive is almost indivisible from the sex drive, and Riccardo and Leopoldo are the artistic equivalents of Fausto and Alfredo. Riccardo is a promising singer but appears uninterested in leaving Rimini for Rome where he could discover how big a fish he'd be in a much larger pond. Leopoldo, on the other hand, begins to believe in his own creative power when a famed actor shows interest in his play, but loses grip on his dream when it turns out it's not the young man's writing that has piqued the old actor's interest. Riccardo and Leopoldo try to maintain a white-knuckle grip on their childhood in order to avoid the self-discovery that goes along with bold and unfettered artistic expression. Fausto and Alfredo try to avoid their sexual and financial responsibilities for the same reason. After all, traveling down such paths is bound to give them a glimpse of their own mortality. This connection between sex, art, personal discovery, and death is at the center of all Fellini's films. The often covert presence of the Grim Reaper is the source of his films' energy, their humor, and their bear-hug embrace of life. It's telling that the last film he made before truly setting off on his exuberant adventure is about a group of characters terrified to dive into life with both feet. They're the men Fellini chose not to be.
And in the middle of it all this useless death-dodging is Moraldo, the observer. A feckless dreamer like the others, he seems more passive and unassuming until we begin to realize he understands his friends' dilemmas better than they do themselves. Fellini himself was past 30 when he made I Vitelloni. He'd already left his childhood in Rimini, was married to actress Giulietta Masina, and was well on the way to establishing himself as a singular director. Each of the characters in the film is a reflection of who he once was, but Moraldo is Fellini's doppelgänger, both observer and participant in the film's events. We're not privy to Moraldo's romantic or artistic confusion, but his recognition that he and his pals have come to a crossroads tells us they do indeed exist inside him. We infer Moraldo's identity from the actions and behavior of the other characters just as we see Fellini through the intermediary of his film. As such, Moraldo's action at film's end—his new-found agency in his own life—comes as no shock to us. I Vitelloni, in essence, tells the story of how Fellini decided to be a filmmaker. Most of the remainder of his films, from La Strada on, would explore the implications of that decision.
Criterion's DVD release of I Vitelloni is light on extras but offers a mighty impressive transfer from a restored composite fine-grain print. The black-and-white full screen image is mostly sharp with controlled grain, deep blacks, bright whites, and a luscious gray scale. Isolated scenes are softer and grainier than the norm, and there's some slight flicker here and there, but the quality overall is typical of Criterion's high standards. The restored mono audio (in Italian with optional English subtitles) is slightly more impressive than the video quality. It's located in the center speaker on surround systems (standard Criterion treatment for mono tracks) and is clean, bold, and free of distracting hiss or distortion.
Vitellonismo is a 35-minute documentary, produced by Criterion for this release, comprised of interviews with actors Leopoldo Trieste and Franco Interlenghi among others. The piece is more nostalgic than academic, its participants looking back on their experience working on the film and with Fellini, but it's still entertaining and informative. The disc also houses a still gallery, indexed into five separate sections: "Original Italian Program" (5 stills), "Film Stills" (57 stills), "Photo Books" (13 stills), and "Posters and Lobby Cards" (18 stills). Finally, the original Italian theatrical trailer has been preserved on the disc, and writer Tom Piazza (My Cold War: A Novel) offers a solid overview of the film and its place in Fellini's oeuvre in the fold-out insert booklet.
I Vitelloni may fall just outside of Fellini's strongest period of filmmaking, from 1954's La Strada to 1963's 8 1/2, but it's a damned fine film and provides useful artistic context for his later masterpieces. On top of that, the film looks beautiful in this meticulously handled DVD from Criterion. A must have for Fellini fans, those unfamiliar with the director should give this one a spin, too.
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• Vitellonismo Documentary
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