Great Films: I Vitelloni (Federico Fellini, 1953, Italy / France)

I Vitelloni when released in the US was given the unfortunate name The Young and the Passionate, which, though essentially descriptive of the film, does make it sound like a dodgy 1980s US soap opera with big shoulder-pads and even bigger hairdos. A literal translation of the title remains a little ambiguous, most stressing it refers to fattened veal calves, though it is also related to the slang vaudellone, meaning ‘fat gut’. Nevertheless, the meaning is clear in relation to the film’s main theme, that of layabout young-ish men unwilling to face growing up and responsibility.

The vitelloni of the title are a tight group of men who populate a small seaside Italian town not unlike the Rimini where director Fellini himself grew up, and we are initially introduced to them one by one as the camera scans slowly across the bar at which they appear to regularly haunt. There is Leopoldo the intellectual and amateur playwright, Alberto (played by the young Alberto Soldi) a rather effeminate clown-like character, Riccardo a wannabe singer, Moraldo introverted dreamer, and finally Fausto, the womaniser and spiritual leader of the group.

All of the men are, in differing ways, dreamers. They all harbour grand ambitions and dreams, but the one thing that unites them is their unwillingness to leave the comfort and safety of their small hometown. For all of their big talk, and their petulant aloofness towards their town’s fellow inhabitants, they are all of them inexorably tied to the place they claim to depise. They mostly survive from the money doled out to them by their famlies; only one appears to have an actual job, which ends predictably in disaster. All the men seem to do is drift around, stand on the beach philosophising, and generally avoid anything like work or responsibility.

If the setup of the film, idle young men with too much time and too little to do, seems familiar, then it is because of the film’s lasting influence on its cinematic antecedents. The first wave of these would probably come with the ‘movie brats’ of the 1970s: Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1972), George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) all betraying a heavy debt to Fellini’s film. Through the early 1980s there were the likes of Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982), and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983), while more recently the work of Richard Linklater springs to mind, whose Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993) both are heavily under its influence.

Fellini had a background in the neorealism movement prevalent in Italy during the post-war decade; he had cut his cinematic teeth co-writing the Roberto Rossellini classic Roma, città aperta [Rome, Open City] (1945), a collaboration which continued with Paisà (1946). But from his early self-directed films, Luci del varietà [Variety Lights] (1950) and Lo Sceicco bianco [The White Sheik] (1952), it was clear that his interest was not merely rooted in realism, but elements of spectacle, artifice and stagecraft. So while I Vitelloni does have some neorealistic elements – there is marital infidelity, out of wedlock pregnancy, domestic violence, unemployment and poverty – there is a lightness and a humour in its tone which sets it apart from that blanket description. Indeed, by the early 1950s, the key neorealist directors were in periods of transition: Vittorio De Sica was emerging into his ‘magical realist’ phase, Rossellini himself into his ‘Ingrid Trilogy’, Luchino Visconti into period epics such as Senso (1954).

Neorealism had demanded that films should be shot on actual locations, using non-professional actors who had lived lives similar to those being portrayed, but Fellini was breaking with that tradition. The Rimini shown in I Vitelloni is not actually Rimini; the beach scenes, for example are filmed in Ostia, just as in the later Amarcord (1973) his hometown would be recreated in the sets at Cinecittà. The main actors, while sharing the names of the characters they portray, are largely professional; in the case of Leopoldo Trieste and Alberto Sordi, previous collaborators with the director on Lo Sceicco Bianco, and soon to be big names in Italian cinema for decades to come.

The point he was making is clear, a summation of his attitude to his art, in contradiction to what he had been doing before; the portrayal of reality demands not ‘authentic’ locales and actors, but artificial contructs. To tell the truth about a situation it is necessary to invent it. This will be seen in much of his later work; the mock Via Veneto of La Dolce Vita (1960) painstakingly reconstructed in Cinecittà, the gigantic Rex cruise liner of Amarcord, the entire staging of Satyricon (1969), the street scenes in Roma (1972).

I Vitelloni is also a useful signpost for what was to immediately to come from il Maestro, particularly in terms of its scoring. Nino Rota had already composed for more than 60 films prior to working on this one, but this would prove to be his first truly memorable soundtrack. The main theme skips along at an andante pacing, somewhat symbolic of the protagonists’ skulking about their town. The theme is then replicated in a variety of means throughout the rest of the film, and like so many of the future Fellini-Rota collaborations to come, helps to hold the film together.

The following year after I Vitelloni, La Strada would gain critical acclaim, the Silver Lion at Venice, and signal a new direction for Fellini: a ‘trilogy of loneliness’ made up by Il Bidone (1955) and Le Notti Di Cabiria (1957). Worldwide fame would then beckon with La Dolce Vita and (1963), and the word ‘Felliniesque‘ would soon enter the dictionary and cinematic lexicon. But I Vitelloni is every bit as important and classic as any of the director’s great films, and one whose influence can hardly be overestimated, and can be surprising. On first watch, a scene where Alberto Sordi’s character dances in drag at a party seemed to me highly derivative of Jack Lemmon’s similar routine in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. But I soon realised that Some Like it Hot had been made six years hence.

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