April 26, 2010

0 I Vitelloni (1953)

Country: Italy
Director: Federico Fellini

What a joy it was to rediscover this early masterpiece of Fellini. When I first saw it years ago while in college, I was familiar only with the more flamboyant works of the 1960s, and I didn't quite know what to make of this one. Now I can see it as Fellini's first full-blown masterpiece, a film that bridges the gap between the postwar neorealism of Roberto Rossellini—with whom Fellini cowrote several movies including Open City and Paisan, working as assistant director on those films as well—and the later works made in Fellini's increasingly personal and fanciful style.

The movie deals with the adventures and misadventures of five buddies in a postwar seaside town, unnamed but generally assumed to be Fellini's own hometown of Rimini. These men are referred to in contemporary Italian slang as vitelloni, translated as "the guys" or "the layabouts." In modern American slang they would probably be called slackers. Nearly thirty years old and obviously well-educated, they dress stylishly and talk of life in the big city while putting down the hidebound attitudes of their provincial town. Yet they are unmarried, live at home with their families, and don't work (although some have unachieved career aspirations)—clear examples of arrested development. Like the three main characters in Fellini's next film, La Strada (which was actually written before I Vitelloni but not considered commercial enough to be made right away), each of the five represents a character type: a beret-wearing, bespectacled intellectual who wants to be a playwright; a handsome Don Juan; a chubby, talented musician; a goofball (played in his inimitable hysterico-comic way by Alberto Sordi); and an introspective, observant young man named Moraldo who is clearly a stand-in for the young Fellini. At the end of the movie, only Moraldo has actually left to pursue his dreams in Rome, leaving the others behind to continue their avoidance of adulthood in the sticks.

I Vitelloni contains many images that would recur in later Fellini movies. A scene of the pals on the pier in mid-winter gazing wistfully out to sea presages the scene of Marcello on the beach near the end of La Dolce Vita; an episode at the theater, Cabiria's visit to the variety show in The Nights of Cabiria; a priest high up in a tree, the mad uncle in the tree in Amarcord; the Lent carnival, the wild parties of La Dolce Vita, Juliet of the Spirits, and Satyricon; Moraldo's friendship with a little boy who works at the train station (which makes him see how much he has to lose by staying in his hometown) presages Marcello's friendship with the girl on the beach in La Dolce Vita (which makes him see how much he has lost in his quest for success in the big city).

With I Vitelloni Fellini begins the process of taking events from his own life, transforming them, and incorporating them into the events in his movies, a subject he dealt with directly in . Taken together, four of his movies form a sort of cinematic autobiography that pinpoints Fellini's state of mind at various stages of his life. I Vitelloni is Fellini's portrait of the artist as a young man, leaving behind the comfortable strictures of the past for an unknown future. La Dolce Vita (1960) shows its main character on the verge of fame but still torn between the simplistic morality of his provincial origins and the disturbing decadence he sees all around him. (1963) portrays a middle-aged film director now famous but still haunted by images of the past, fearful of commitment (except to his art), and plagued by an entirely new set of problems, both personal and professional. Finally, in Amarcord (1973) Fellini returns to his more innocent and hopeful boyhood in search of lost time. It's no wonder these films resonate powerfully with audiences, so authentically does Fellini encapsulate the universal in the personal.

But even outside the context of Fellini's oeuvre, I Vitelloni stands as a brilliant film in its own right. Fellini enlivens his realistically observed story with the kind of near-surreal images and episodes that came to be associated with his style: the Miss Mermaid 1953 beauty contest that opens the film, a group of priests walking single-file on the beach, the bizarre shop of religious notions that one of the group is forced by his father to work in, the gilded angel statue he steals from the shop, the simple-minded Giudizio who helps him try (unsuccessfully) to peddle the angel to a nunnery and a monastery then installs the statue on a mound at the beach and adores its otherworldly beauty.

Fellini is masterful at interweaving the stories of the five different main characters, deftly juggling and mingling individual plot lines. And although each of the five vitelloni is an identifiable type, Fellini invests each with a distinct personality. He already shows his brilliance at matching the actor to the part and gets superb performances from all five of his leading men, including his brother Riccardo, who plays the musician. The most famous member of the cast was Alberto Sordi, and in fact Fellini organized the long shooting schedule around Sordi, who was touring Italy with a vaudeville company at the time. Sordi turns in a broad but at times quite touching comic performance as Alberto, the joker of the group. When he attends the carnival costume ball in drag—wearing a short blonde wig and one of his mother's hats and flapper dresses from the 1920s, with overdone makeup including a beauty spot and a comically vampish, pouty, heavy-lidded expression, doing an exaggerated tango with a male partner—just try not to think of Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.

Interestingly, the only one of the main actors who never worked more than once with Fellini is Franco Interlenghi, who plays Fellini's alter ego, Moraldo. Is the fact that Interlenghi is easily the best-looking of the vitelloni—just as Marcello Mastroianni and Bruno Zanin, who performed the same function in later films, were clearly more attractive than Fellini himself—an indication that Fellini was just a bit vain? At any rate, Interlenghi does a first-rate job of portraying a person who is more an observer of events than a participant. The character never openly discusses the subject with any of his pals, but Interlenghi subtly conveys Moraldo's growing discomfort with his buddies and the dawning realization that if he doesn't take the plunge and leave them behind, he will be trapped in the same kind of dead-end life they are destined for.

One of the last shots of the film leaves a lasting impression—a shot of Moraldo looking sadly from the early morning train that is taking him away, clearly fighting the urge to stay, waving tentatively at his friend the station boy, who is walking away from him, balancing on one rail as though walking on a tightrope. Moraldo almost seems to be saying goodbye to his past and to his youthful self. At the same time, images of each of the other vitelloni still asleep in their beds flash by in his mind and he knows that life in the little town will go on without him the same as always, while he is borne away to a new life somewhere else.


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