I Vitelloni (1953)
Written by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, and Tullio Pinelli
Directed by Federico Fellini
There are names in film that evoke a plethora of reactions. I’ve noticed within the filmTok sub-community of TikTok an effort to mock “film school dudes,” a class of people who often do deserve the mockery. The loudest ones certainly carry themselves with an air of superiority and pretentiousness. One way that people seek to make fun of film school dudes is to point to different directors as “red flags,” implying these filmmakers are problematic. This is where they lose me, choosing to point to directors like Martin Scorsese or Coppola as figureheads of toxic masculinity. If you watch their films and look beyond the surface presentation, you’ll quickly find these movies are brutally dissecting ideas of masculinity and pointing at the attitudes of their fathers & grandfathers as horribly destructive. I sometimes see Fellini’s name brought into the mix, and I couldn’t disagree more. The film bro may not understand Fellini and walk away with a pompous view of his masculinity, but that is more indicative of Americans’ lack of critical thinking than the actual work Fellini was doing.
Federico Fellini was born to a working-class Italian family in 1920. He grew up in the type of Catholic culture you might expect, a religion that stuck with him his entire life in some form or another. Fellini’s imagination was captured by the growing comic strip industry, particularly the work of Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) and Frederick Opper (Happy Hooligan). Childhood was interrupted by the rise of Mussolini’s fascist regime, and Fellini was pushed into the compulsory student fascist groups; his disdain for authoritarianism emerged from these experiences. As an adult, Fellini would work as a cartoonist, and the comedy writing that career helped him develop led him to start writing comedy screenplays and radio plays. During this period, he met actress Giulietta Masina who would become one of his greatest muses and his wife.
By the early 1950s, Fellini was directing films he had written and had moderate success. Things took a dire turn with the failure of The White Sheik, his first attempt at solo directing. It seemed like filmmaking might not be in Fellini’s future, but he kept working and his next film, I Vitelloni. The title comes from Italian slang used to refer to slackers. The film opens at the end of summer in a beachside Italian town. A group of five men have coasted by through life using their parent’s financial support to cavort, drink, and have sex. Their “spiritual guide,” as they call him, Fausto, learns he has gotten one of his partners, Sandra, pregnant and is expected to marry her and settle down. Fausto refuses to take responsibility for his life and constantly cheats on Sandra. Meanwhile, the other four men find themselves pursuing dreams that are falling apart.
I Vitelloni is a transitory film, standing at the end of the first chapter of Fellini’s filmmaking career and the subsequent brilliant explosion of ideas and art. Visually, you won’t see many of the signatures associated with the better films in his filmography, but what we get is the start of cracking open his character’s psyches and going deeper with them. The story is episodic and less concerned with an overarching plot; instead, Fellini is centrally concerned with characters.
Thematically, I Vitelloni explores the same ideas we’ll see in later films. Fellini is interested in the dynamics between men and women and the expectations of society for each. What comes to the surface are the frequent infidelities men commit, how they are allowed to live as children long after what should be acceptable, and the complex relationship humans have with nostalgia. Fellini constantly goes back to his childhood, attempting to perform an inquest, searching for some great truth he felt he understood during those years but lost along the way. This film is about men being made to grow up and trying to hold onto something connected to that childlike joy; they hurt many people along the way.
In America, we saw this Rat Pack-like configuration of men turned into a glorification of masculinity, starting with Sinatra and his crew but continuing into the modern-day with film franchises like The Hangover. In American film, this configuration is not viewed so critically but instead praised as “party animals.” I don’t think Fellini would agree with this idea, though he doesn’t write them off as rotten to the core. Growing up in the modern world is increasingly more complex; this story could easily be remade with the same sensitivity and care about contemporary men. But, unlike in his other films, there isn’t a strong sense of hope at the end, just uncertainty.
The only character who comes close to having some sense of morality is Moraldo, the younger brother of Sandra and one of the five central men. He’s deeply conflicted when finding out his sister is pregnant by his friend. Moraldo doesn’t respond in a burst of violence; he mostly seems confused and unsure how to navigate all of this. That is contrasted by his parents, who proclaim that Sandra and Fausto are moving in with them as soon as they are married to ensure the baby is born healthy. Fausto’s father lives in a constant state of shame over his slacker son and puts up no fight at this suggestion. In fact, the old man will end up beating the hell out of his adult son when the infidelity becomes too much.
The most crucial relationship in the picture is not between any of the men or with their partners; it’s between Moraldo and Guido, a station boy whom he befriends. The two have known each other for a while, but Moraldo finds himself more and more concerned with Guido and making sure the kid is okay. Guido still has a child’s view of life, easily content and simply happy to exist, something Moraldo intensely envies. Guido is at heart a Fool character, in the sense that he’s the figure in the movie untouched by the stresses & anxieties of life, yet not a destructive cad like Fausto. Guido’s joy is based on innocence, a theme we’ll see throughout Fellini’s work. This moment at the train station would become a keystone to the director’s films, his philosophy that as a filmmaker, his job was to bring characters to the station. The story he tells is about how they get there and not be concerned about where they go from there. In most narrative writing, endings are seen as characters arriving at a moment of revelation; Fellini chose the opposite. Endings are the moment of departure, characters continue living on in our imaginations, but the end of a story is when we must say goodbye. You see this theme continuing in some of the best films & television of today, The Sopranos comes to mind, a series finale that didn’t serve to provide Tony with a sense of revelation, but it was where the audience and the characters went their separate ways. People are complex, and the endings are even more so.