No question about it, the twentieth century produced a plethora of great artists. Who was the greatest artist of the twentieth century? Impossible to say, especially if you take into account all of the classic arts, especially that cocky new kid on the block, film. Yet if we were to survey the lists of great artists and entertainers of that hundred years we can’t help but find a small clique of artists who not only put out an incredible body of work, both in terms of quantity and quality, but were also constantly re-inventing themselves, going through more periods then a kid does in a school day. Some examples of this would have to be Pablo Picasso, Miles Davis, and even though they were only together for a relatively brief amount of time compared to their peers and successors, the Beatles. One person who also must be added to that list is Federico Fellini, easily one of the most beloved, influential and worshiped film directors of his day.
Oh yes, Fellini was worshiped. All over the world people lined up hours in advance to see what cinematic wonder he came up with this time. He may very well have been the most famous filmmaker on earth during his heyday, which spanned roughly from the mid-fifties to the mid-to-late seventies. Oh he had some challengers to the crown. Naturally there was Alfred Hitchcock. Also Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman. Orson Welles was certainly in the running thanks to Citizen Kane being recognized as the greatest film ever made, but while Welles was always in the limelight thanks to his many acting roles and TV appearances, almost every film he ever directed took a few years to find an audience. Fellini, on the other hand, always had an audience at the ready.
Welles once described Fellini’s films as a small town boy’s view of big city life. Certainly this was something Welles could relate to. Though it has close to 100,000 residents today, his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin was indeed a fairly small city at the time of his birth. After his parents died he was taken to live in Chicago. He’d spend the rest of his life in the world’s great metropoleis – Dublin, London, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Madrid and Las Vegas. Fellini came from the seaside town of Rimini in Northeast Italy. Though it was a popular vacation destination in Fellini’s day, it too has seen it’s share of growth and today is a popular seaside resort city. But it was still rather provincial in Fellini’s youth. Yet while Welles moved from city to city, Fellini settled permanently in Rome. He moved to the Italian capital in 1938 to study at the University of Rome. He apparently never attended a single class. Instead he eked out a living by sketching patrons in restaurants, working as a cub reporter for a local newspaper and then as a comedy writer for a humor magazine. He then began writing for the radio, a job that introduced him to his future wife and muse, the actress Giulietta Masina. After the war he opened up a small establishment called the Funny Face Shop where he drew caricatures of returning G.I.’s. While working there he met Roberto Rossellini, who would go on to be the father of the Italian neorealist movement, not to mention Isabella Rossellini. Fellini collaborated on the screenplay for the landmark film Rome, Open City and later Paisan, both of which showed the world the harrowing conditions during World War II.
Rome would remain his home and the setting for most of his films until the day he died. Yet he was always haunted by his childhood in Rimini. His movies frequently feature shots of the sea. La Strada ends with the strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) breaking down and weeping when he learns that the little waif that he traveled with and abused (played by Masina) had died. La Dolce Vita ends with Marcello Mostreoni and his evening revelers finding a sea creature that has washed ashore and a young girl standing in the distance in the surf, saying something he can’t hear. 8 1/2 has a young boy watching a fat, voluptuous whore dance the rumba, only to be harshly punished by the local clergy when he’s found out. And then of course there’s Amarcord, the title of which literally translates into I Remember and paints a sumptuous portrait of life in a seaside town. Amarcord is my favorite Fellini film and one of my favorite movies of all time! Heck, I wish I could live in that film!
Fellini’s first feature film was Variety Lights. Co-directed by Alberto Lattuada and starring Giulietta Masina, the film centered on a troupe of vaudevillians and their lives back stage and in rooming houses. His next film was The White Sheik, his first solo effort and his second film to star Masina. Neither film was a commercial success but the world did indeed take notice with his third feature, I Vitelloni.
According to Fellini, the title refers to “the unemployed of the middle class, mother’s pets. They shine during the holiday season end. Waiting for it takes up the rest of the year.” The title comes from the Romangnol word for either “veal” or “calf.” The vitelloni of this film refer to Alberto (Alberto Sordi), a daydreamer who is supported by his mother and sister Olga (Claude Farell), who unlike her brother actually has a job, one that allows him to mooch off of her. Ricardo (Ricardo Fellini, brother of Frederico) is a robust tenor who doesn’t seem to have much of a desire to turn pro. Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) is a poet and aspiring dramatist. Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) is the hansom lothario of the group and Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) is the youngest of the group. While his friends go home after a night of aimless carousing, what we in this country would call “hanging out,” Moraldo sits on a park bench, enjoying the solitude of the night. One night he meets a young boy who works as a station agent. The boy gets up at three o’clock every morning to report to his job. Moraldo feels a bit embarrassed that a kid at least ten years his junior has a job and he doesn’t. He also yearns to one-day get on that train and leave to see the world.
Each year at the end of summer their seaside town holds its annual Mermaid Festival, which culminates with a beauty contest. Moraldo’s sister Sandra (Leonaora Ruffo) wins the contest. Indeed, she’s a beautiful young lady. But no sooner is she crowned mermaid queen that she passes out. When Fausto learns what happened, he immediately goes home and starts packing a suitcase. He tells his father (Jean Borchard) that he’s accepted a job in Milan, though he can’t quite articulate what the job entails. Dad’s not buying it. Soon Moraldo shows up. He informs the father and son that Sandra is pregnant and it’s pretty clear that Fausto is the father. His Dad’s not going to let Fausto run away. He demands that his son do the honorable thing and marry the girl.
Sure enough they have a big, beautiful wedding with everyone in the town attending. Fausto seems somewhat happy and Sandra seems smitten with him. They go off to Rome for their honeymoon. Meanwhile the remaining four vitelloni kill time by doing, well, not much of anything. They sit on a pier and stare out into the ocean. They take a walk on the beach. When a stray dog runs up, Alberto starts an impromptu game of fetch with the canine. Alas, he’s not too happy when he sees his sister carrying on with a man Alberto knows to be married.
Fausto and Sandra eventually return from their honeymoon, he now sporting a debonair mustache. His in-laws have said the newlyweds can live with them until they get up on their feet but in the meantime Fausto needs to get a job. His father-in-law arranges for him to get a job as a clerk in a store that sells religious antiques. Alas, the monotony of work doesn’t seem to agree with him. What’s more, he’s already finding fidelity to be disagreeable. Oh, he loves Sandra and treats her with tenderness the moment he sees her after work. But he still has a wandering eye. One night they go to the movies and Fausto notices an exotic woman (Arlette Sauvage) sitting on his opposite side. When the woman gets up to leave, Fausto excuses himself, claiming he wants to get some air. He instead follows the woman home and once she gets into her building, Fausto grabs and kisses her (Obviously this was way before the #MeToo movement). She rebuffs him and warns him that she’s married. When he arrives back at the cinema he sees a forlorn Sandra standing out front. She’s obviously hurt to have been left alone and suspicious about Fausto’s disappearance. He manages to smooth things over with sweet talk.
Festivals and social gatherings of any kind would go on to be a hallmark of Fellini’s work. In I Vitteloni we are treated to a carnival and a masquerade ball. Taking place in a grand hall with streamers and confetti raining down, it’s hard not to wish you were there. One also can’t help but be swept up by the musical score written by Nino Rota, who first worked with Fellini on The White Sheik and who would score every one of the masters films right up until Noto’s death in 1979. His glorious, distinctly Italian scores (he also wrote the music for Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet and The Godfather) were often a mix of marches, jazz, circus music and other genres that became so closely associated with Fellini that he actually thought about retiring after Noto’s death. Like Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone or Steven Spielberg and John Williams, Fellini and Roto comprise one of the greatest director/composer collaborations in cinema history.
When the festival is over, a drunken Alberto returns home to find that Olga has run off with her married lover. He finds his rather typically dramatic Italian mother weeping uncontrollably. Alberto promises to care for her and to get a job. How serious he is, well, that’s another story.
Fausto arrives at work two hours late and is chastised by his boss (Carlo Romano). “My friends sister ran away last night,” explains Fausto. “Someone’s sister runs away every night,” says his boss. After they close he does something really stupid. Having seen his bosses wife at the ball the previous night, he makes a pass at her. He seems like he’s just fooling around, but obviously he should know better. After closing time, his boss gives Fausto the sack.
That night he confesses to Moraldo that he’s been fired. Not understanding the circumstances, Moraldo tells Fausto that he should have been given a severance, despite his rather short tenure at the shop (maybe this was a law in Italy at the time. I obviously don’t know). That’s when Fausto talks his young brother-in-law into a scheme. They steel a wooden statue of an angel from the shops basement with the intent to sell it and split the money. Easier said then done. They take the statue to a convent and a monetary and are turned down by both. Later that night Moraldo and Sandra’s father comes home in a rage. He learns about their plot and had to talk the police out of arresting them. Moraldo once again goes to bat for Fausto, telling Sandra that it wasn’t really his fault and that the boss’s wife came on to him. She forgives him once again.
One night the group of friends go and see a performance by the great, elderly actor Sergio Natali (Achille Mejeroni). The thespian has apparently read one of the plays written by Leopoldo, the budding playwright. The actor says that he loved the play and would like to perform it. He invites Leopoldo to take a walk and discuss the play. Things get awkward when they get to the sea. Natali asks Leopoldo to walk with him and read the fourth act, but he fears Natali is coming on to him. This is only hinted at, of course. Still it’s worth noting that Fellini originally approached Vittorio De Sica, the master director behind Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief and one of the earliest films I profiled on this blog, Umberto D. Before directing De Sica was a matinee idol. He was interested in the part but eventually got cold feet, fearing that people might actually think he was homosexual. Fellini later claimed that De Sica would have been “too nice, too fascinating, too distracting,” so he instead cast the portly, over-the-hill Achille Majeroni.
While Leopoldo discusses the play with Natali, Fausto’s wandering eye once again focuses in on a good-looking woman. In this case an unattached member of the acting troupe. Clearly a woman of the world, she sleeps with him, not expecting any attachment. Moraldo waits for him in the plaza. He doesn’t berate him but one suspects that he’s getting tired of his best friend cheating on his sister.
When Fausto gets home, Sandra sees him wiping lipstick off his cheek in the mirror. The next morning she takes their chubby, newborn baby and leaves home. Fausto becomes frantic. He and his friends borrow a car and they travel all over looking for Sandra. At one point Fausto runs into the mysterious woman in the cinema. She comes on to him but he’s not interested. He’s finally waking up to what a cad he’s been.
He finally tracks down Sandra at his father’s house. He’s relieved beyond belief to see his wife and child. Dad, on the other hand, has had quite enough of Fausto’s philandering. He takes off his belt and tries to beat Fausto. This freaks Sandra out. The scene is more comical then anything. Moraldo greets Fausto when he gets home. “If she had died I would have killed myself,” he says. “You wouldn’t kill yourself,” Moraldo retorts. “You’re too much of a coward.” It looks as if there’s now a rift between them that cannot be mended.
This leads to a very poignant conclusion. One morning Moraldo heads to the train station. His young friend who works at the station is there. “Where are you going?” he asks. “I don’t know,” Moroldo confesses. As the train pulls out we see all of his friends, fast asleep, sleeping in the beds they probably always will sleep in. There lives are set but Moroldo’s is just beginning.
As a story about young men living in small towns or insular communities, I Vitelloni has influenced a whole number of American films. Martin Scorsese has frequently sighted Fellini’s film as a major influence on Mean Streets. True, the latter film is set in New York City, not a small town. Yet it focuses on a small clique of friends who’s entire lives revolve around their neighborhood of Little Italy. George Lucas has also sighted I Vitelloni as an influence on American Graffiti. That film dealt with four (rather then five) male friends in a small town in Northern California. Like Moraldo, Richard Dreyfuss’s character is sort of the odd man out. He’s apprehensive about leaving home but ultimately he’s the one that leaves. Other films that owe a debt to I Vitteloni include The Last Picture Show, Diner, Stand by Me and St. Elmo’s Fire.
I Vitelloni premiered to great critical acclaim and at the 1953 Venice Film Festival it was awarded the Silver Lion. It would take a few years to be released in the U.S. but when it was it was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Stanley Kubrick even once sighted it s one of his favorite movies of all time.
I Vitelloni does have one foot in the tradition of neorealism, even if it’s largely a-political and doesn’t really deal with the down trodden. His next film, the utterly sublime La Strada added a sense of childlike wonder that made Fellini’s work so unique. Ditto Nights of Cabiria. Later his films became less concerned with narrative and became more mosaic like in their construction and more baroque in their final design. Certainly films like La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2. Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon, The Clowns, Roma and Amarcord give new meaning to the word spectacle, making the word “Felliniesque” part of the cinematic lexicon.
Fellini was one in a billion. When he died Akira Kurasowa himself lamented that “I can’t believe I’ll never see another Fellini film.” Sadly, there’s a whole generation of film students and other young people who have no idea who Fellini was. Nor do they know Kurasowa, Bergman, Antonioni or many of the other greats of post war cinema. It’s not really their fault. Young minds need to be opened up. Given the fact that we are right now living in a day and age when young people face a bleak future, can’t find work, have to live with their parents longer then expected and may even suffer from a sense of arrested development then I Vitteloni might just be a great introduction to the Italian master.