Ode to the Ambitionless: I VITELLONI

August 1, 2023 - 10:28am
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953) were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 4K DCP of I Vitelloni will screen on Wednesday, August 2 at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission to the screening is free!

By John Bennett

By 1953, Italy was on the mend. After the better part of a decade, the deep wounds left in the country by World War II and fascist leadership had started to heal. In 1946, the Italian electorate peacefully scrapped their monarchy through a nationwide referendum. The election—one of the first in which Italian women could legally vote—established Italy as a key Western democracy. The Marshall plan, meanwhile, was pumping vast sums of money into Italy, helping the country repair and modernize its war-ravaged infrastructure. Construction was on the rise, and employment opportunities flourished in Northern urban centers. This is the transforming society in which the driftless protagonists of Federico Fellini’s I vitelloni find themselves.

 In 1939, Fellini moved to Rome—the center of the Italian entertainment industry—from the coastal town of Rimini where he had spent his middle-class childhood. And it is Rimini that furnished the inspiration for Fellini’s sophomore feature (his second solo project after the release of The White Sheik the previous year). Literally denoting a young steer, I vitelloni is an idiomatic term in Italian for a loafer or a layabout. According to Fellini, Rimini abounded with these ambitionless young men, for whom life was “inert, provincial, opaque, dull, without cultural stimulation of any kind.” For such men, Fellini once said, “every night was the same night.” Drawing from these memories of Rimini, I vitelloni follows the mundane misadventures of a small gang of friends in an equally small coastal town. At the head of the group is Fausto (Fausto Moretti), whose marriage into a respectable family does not quell his strong and often brazen appetite for womanizing. Alberto (Alberto Sordi) is the clown of the group who nevertheless must confront turbulence within his family born of the constricting nature of the small town. Leopoldo, the bespectacled intellectual of the gang, aspires to become a great writer, even if paths to that ideal remain closed off to him in his provincial surroundings. Riccardo (Ricardo Fellini, the director’s brother) serves as both confidant and enabler for his caddish coterie. Quietly observing the ennui and mischief of his friends is Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the thoughtful young man who may ultimately harbor a strong desire to extricate himself from the monotony of his friends’ lives.

As it falls toward the earliest part of his career, I vitelloni reflects Fellini’s early adherence to traditional film style. Still, some stylistic flourishes hint at the lavishness that would characterize the director’s style in the years to come. In one windy evening scene, a piazza and its narrow tributaries buzz with dancing light as streetlamps are jostled by strong gusts.  Present, too, are some traces of the grotesquerie that abounds in later films like Satyricon (1969) or Casanova (1976). During the last drunken throes of a Carnival celebration, leering clown heads loom over a drunken Alberto. Later in the film, when Leopoldo goes on a nocturnal stroll with a prominent theater actor who has expressed interest in Leopoldo’s play, a pointedly eerie expression spreads across the face of the actor as he subtly makes his less-than-lofty desires clear to the young writer. Most haunting, however, are the beautiful wide compositions that dwarf the aimless characters in the midst of lonely vistas. Fellini—along with cinematographers Carlo Carlini, Luciano Trasatti and Otello Martelli (the latter of whom also collaborated with Fellini on La strada and La dolce vita)—isolate the film’s characters from afar in the corners of empty piazzas, dusty roads, and unadorned train stations. Such shots infuse the film with pictorial beauty while underscoring barrenness of the characters’ lives in the small town from which they can’t seem to escape.

The thematic preoccupations of I vitelloni reflect larger trends of Italian cinema of the 1950s and 1960s in two ways. First, the film explores a crisis of identity among a young postwar generation; second, it probes the growing sense of provincialism felt among the residents of small regional towns in the face of the bustling postwar ascendancy of cities like Rome and Milan. Throughout I vitelloni, the protagonists struggle to find meaning and excitement in their daily lives, and they remain acutely aware of the erosion of their youth. To counter the tedium of his job selling religious bric-a-brac, Fausto embarks on a disastrous attempt to seduce his boss’s wife. At one point, Moraldo befriends a young railroad worker who, one could presume, is doomed to cultivate the same aimless lifestyle as the film’s principal characters. Frequent were the explorations of the aimlessness of younger generations in the dozen or so years that followed I vitelloni: Antonioni’s Le amiche (1955), Zurlini’s La ragazza con valigia (1961), Risi’s Il sorpasso (1962), and Pietrangeli’s La parmigiana (1963) all follow in I vitelloni’s wake in their depiction of youthful crises of identity. With The Basilisks (1963), Fellini protégé Lina Wertmüller virtually remade I vitelloni ten years after its release. Accompanying this treatment of wayward and vanishing youth is the film’s interest in the town’s provincialism compared to the excitement and opportunity of Italy’s growing urban centers. Alberto looks on helplessly as his sister, stifled by life in the small town, tearfully abandons her family for life in the city. Fausto’s brief sojourn away from the town after his hasty marriage is looked upon by his friends with mild wonder. The stark divide between the city and the country, the north and the south would appear again as a major theme in films like Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Olmi’s Il posto (1961), Lattuada’s Mafioso (1962), and Pasolini’s Love Meetings (1964) among others. In this sense, I vitelloni proved to be a key precursor in Italian cinema’s subsequent interest in the psychology and sociology of its characters.

I vitelloni was Fellini’s first true commercial and critical success. After the anemic releases of 1950’s Variety Lights (codirected with Alberto Lattuada) and 1952’s The White Shiek, I vitelloni resonated with Italian critics and audiences alike. The film won the Silver Lion at the 1953 edition of the Venice Film Festival (in a year when no Golden Lion was awarded) and became Fellini’s first film to receive theatrical distribution in the United States. A suite of remarkable international successes would follow: 1954’s La strada, 1957’s Nights of Cabria and (especially) 1960’s La dolce vita would cement Fellini’s reputation as a world-class cineaste. Fellini would go on to revisit his memories of Rimini twenty years later with Amarcord (1973)—though this time those memories would be filtered through the uninhibited dreaminess that pervades every Fellini film after 1963’s 8 ½. A testament to I vitelloni’s extensive influence can be found in another 1973 release: George Lucas drew inspiration from Fellini’s film in crafting American Graffiti. Though La strada, La dolce vita, 8 ½, and Amarcord may currently enjoy loftier positions in the canon of world cinema, I vitelloni remains one of Fellini’s most influential works.