In 1952, Federico Fellini was not in a position of power. He had been working on La Strada, but its path to success was anything but certain. Fellini had made a romantic comedy, The White Sheik, but it was a flop. Still, the producer Lorenzo Pegoraro was one of few who actually liked it and he wanted Fellini to make another comedy. Finishing La Strada would have to wait. The director started brainstorming with Ennio Flaiano, and possibly one of the writers behind La Strada, Tullio Pinelli, but accounts differ. What they came up with is not really a comedy, but it became Fellini’s international breakthrough as a director.
A pregnant Miss Siren
In a small town on the Adriatic coast, a beauty pageant is about to take place, but is interrupted by a violent rainstorm. ”Miss Siren of 1953”, Sandra Rubini (Leonora Ruffo), is pregnant and when the man whose son, Fausto Moretti (Franco Fabrizi), caused her condition learns about it he forces Fausto to marry her. Fausto’s friends, who are also in their twenties, spend that summer doing precious little. They include Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) who dreams of leaving town; Alberto (Alberto Sordi) who’s unhappy about his sister secretly seeing a married man; Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini) who sings and would like an artistic career; and Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste), an intellectual who’s working on a play.
When Fausto and Sandra return from their honeymoon, he takes a dull job offered by his father-in-law’s friend, but can’t resist trying to seduce every woman in his sight…
A frequently imitated film
There’s no doubt what kind of profound influence I Vitelloni had over the years. The movie is still frequently imitated by filmmakers who see some kind of blueprint in it for nostalgic portraits of (primarily) small-town youth; the most obvious example should be American Graffiti (1973), but Stanley Kubrick also cited the film as one of his favorites. When writing the script, Fellini and his collaborators poured their experiences of growing up in a small town into it and the title of the film became a symbol of the era: ”vitelloni” was dialect for ”calf”, used to describe careless young men, ”the unemployed of the middle class”, as Fellini has described it. An important part of the film is the portrayal of twentysomething men who roam the streets and can’t figure out what to do with their lives.
All the characters struggle in different ways as we follow them in somewhat episodic encounters. I’m sure Fellini and Faiano sympathized the most with Moraldo who finally gets to leave the small town and hopefully make something out of his life, but there’s also a happy ending for Fausto, the incorrigible womanizer. For much of the movie, his behavior is intolerable and offensive, especially now; perhaps it’s a sign of the film’s era that a good thrashing is what it takes to make Fausto suddenly change and magically turn into a good husband.
There’s vivid, crowded scenes such as that opening rainstorm and a masquerade ball that becomes a sad, drunken affair for Alberto, in drag and all. He’s played by Sordi, who was a major star in Italian cinema, but far from popular at the time; Fellini’s choice to cast him turned into a headache for the producers, and so did his decision to hire a bunch of unknowns for the other parts, including his brother Riccardo. Still, when we think if I Vitelloni today, we consider the cast a triumph.
I Vitelloni 1953-Italy. 107 min. B/W. Produced by Jacques Bar, Mario De Vecchi, Lorenzo Pegoraro. Directed by Federico Fellini. Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano. Music: Nino Rota. Cast: Alberto Sordi (Alberto), Franco Interlenghi (Moraldo Rubini), Franco Fabrizi (Fausto Moretti), Leopoldo Trieste (Leopoldo Vannucci), Riccardo Fellini, Leonora Ruffo.
Trivia: Vittorio De Sica was reportedly considered for a role.
Venice: Silver Lion.
Last word: “For a young man in Rimini, the life was inert, provincial, opaque, dull, without cultural stimulation of any kind. Every night was the same…When I left Rimini, I thought my friends would be envious because I was leaving, but far from it. They were perplexed. They didn’t feel the drive to leave that I did.” (Fellini, “I, Fellini”)