Sunday, August 16, 2020

Federico Fellini | I Vitelloni

the great escape
by Douglas Messerli

Federico Fellini and Ennio Flaiano (screenplay), Federico Fellini (director) I Vitelloni / 1953

After Federico Fellini’s early film Variety Lights, which had weak ratings at the box-office, and his next The White Sheik bombed, producers and distributors were understandably hesitant about taking on his new project, I Vitelloni, in which he had cast no major actors except perhaps for Alberto Sordi, who’d had a long career, but after his performance in Fellini’s Sheik was considered to be a wash up.
     Fellini attempted to cast Vittorio De Sica in the role of the aging ham actor, but when he described to the famed diector the character’s homosexual proclivities, De Sica agreed only if the role were to be played with “a great deal of humanity,” which sounds much like the character himself, full-up on humanity but without deep theatrical talent; eventually De Sica turned the role down in fear that audiences might think he, himself was gay. And fortunately, the role of Achille Majeroni was performed rather movingly by Sergio Natali.
     Moreover, Fellini’s and his writing partner Ennio Flaiano’s script was less a unified narrative than it was a series of related and just as often unconnected episodes featuring the five “vitelloni” (best translated into English as “the loafers” or  “the idlers”) who, sponging off of their parents well past the years by which they should have established their own lives, spend their days mostly in cafes, movie houses, and walks along the Adriatic beach when they aren’t, like the local lothario of their group, Fausto Moretti (Franco Fabrizi), entertaining women, all previous to their nightly dance off hand-in-hand down the streets of the small town in which they live, dropping each other off at the respective hoses. In short, they are a bit like the Pasolini “scroungers’ in his film of 8 years later, Accatone.
     Unlike the bright sunshine in which Pasolini’s characters bathe before one of them daringly drops into the river to swim across to the other shore, Fellini’s film begins in a later-afternoon celebration, the annual crowning of one of the town’s female beauties as “Miss Mermaid.” The winner, Sandra Rubini (Leonora Ruffo), is the sister of the youngest of these idlers, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi).
     Sandra has evidently been one of Fausto’s objects of desire, who when she wins the contest is overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of torrential rains, her appreciative crowds, and the fact, we soon perceive, that she is pregnant.
     Guessing the truth, Fausto makes a fast retreat from these festivities in order to pack up and leave town—which is, after all, the desire and endless subject of many of the “vitelloni’s” conversations. But caught in the act by Moraldo and, more importantly, by Fausto’s own father (a lovingly gruff Jean Brochard), along with a threatened belting, Fausto is quickly dissuaded from flight and forced into a kind of “shot-gun” wedding, a rather desultory affair, which ends, at least, in a pleasant few weeks in Rome (nicknamed by the town’s residents “the Big Smoke”) before the couple return to their backwater home with the new-born in arms.
      In the meantime, we get to meet some of the others of these “loafers,” all seemingly bored without the daring Fausto at their side. Alberto (Sordi) is a mama’s boy (a momoni) who tries to keep his mother free from the downpour of tears she daily threatens, both of whom live off the wages brings in from his sister’s nightly work as an at-home typist. The odd-looking Leopoldo Vannucci (Leopoldo Trieste) is the group “intellect” who writes poems and plays which, we later discover are pretty awful.
      Moraldo, who has already been introduced, is the group’s dreamer who can hardly sleep as he paces through the empty night streets imagining a new life anywhere but where he now is seemingly trapped.
      Fausto returns, appearing as the happy father, but almost immediately picks up again with his womanizing, first attempting to gain the affections of a good-looking woman at the movie theater while he is seated between the stranger and his wife. He even dares to leave the theater in order to track his desired conquest back to her apartment, but is—at least temporarily—rejected, while with the movie over, Sandra impatiently waits, astoundingly believing his report that he was attempting to meet someone for a job.
      His wife’s father, with whom the couple is now living, does actually find Fausto job working with a seller of religious items—a strange avocation for someone who so totally committed to the profane. But even here, after seeing the shop owner’s wife in the different setting of the town’s annual carnival celebration, Fausto attempts to bed the signora, an effort that ultimately loses him his job and—after Sandra runs away from home for a long day and a-half—results in his own father actually using the promised belt.

      Alberto attends that same carnival party dressed totally in drag, slowly getting drunk, and ending the evening in one of the most memorable scenes of the movie as he tangos several times across the room and later, with wigged removed, attempts to drag a large carnival mask home with him, while one of his friends attempts to accompany him on his nearly impossible-to-accomplish trek. Utterly depressed, he observes his sister running away with a man from another village awaiting her in his car,  having brought the promised torrent of tears to his mother’s eyes.
      If Alberto’s cross-dressing debut is a rather wistful affair, the final tale Fellini tells concerning Leopoldo is truly sad, although it begins with utter joy as the would-be playwright excitedly invites his friend to a local performance starring a formerly well-known actor now teetering on a freak out of burlesque.
      If the actor no longer shows much talent, to Leopoldo he represents the possibility of finally seeing one of his efforts brought to stage. Oddly, the elderly actor seems impervious to the embarrassingly bad play of several acts that Leopoldo insists upon reading him.
      His friends gradually drift away in search of women, but Leopoldo and the thespian remain intricately involved in the endless reading, in part because the playwright has paid for the actor’s equally grandiose dinner.
     Even after enduring the unbearable torture that Leopoldo forces him to undergo, he insists upon hearing summaries of later scenes, luring the posturing intellect out-of-doors and down the narrow streets of the town, before finally suggesting they visit the beach.

     It is only when the formerly esteemed performer attempts to lure his new friend down onto the pier that Leopoldo—his head still spinning from the praise with which the elder has heaped upon him—realizes the fraud’s sexual intent. Terrified with the implications of the invitation, Leopoldo runs off, his dreams of fame totally dashed.
      At lease Fausto seems now temporarily cured of his loutish behavior. And, in a kind of miracle, Moraldo finally determines to catch the daily train out of town forever, meeting at the station the young railroad boy, Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini) who he has earlier in the film befriended. Obviously, the kid, whom Moraldo nightly meets on the boy’s way to work, symbolizes his own childish and yet wondrous views of the world, not unlike those of il babbo Fellini at the same age.
     In this scene, Fellini’s set-up might almost suggest the hundreds of romantic films that portray the one who is left behind running after the iron monster in hopes of one last look at her or his lover. Clearly, the boy, when told that Moraldo is leaving forever, seems at first a bit disappointed in the fact that he will now be without his early-morning companion, but instead of tearing up he flashes a bright smile, realizing that at last someone has made good on his determination to start life anew.
      Fellini’s long camera shot of the young boy, balancing along the rail of the track for a quite long time, says everything. This youth already has a job and will find a new balance in the world, whether he stays or goes, that most of “the loafers” can never experience.
      Add to this lovely series of tales Nino Rota’s entrancing score and the startlingly crisp black-and-white images of Carlo Carlini’s, Otello Martelli’s, and Luciano Trasatti’s cinematography and you have a film that predicts the director’s future cinematic wonders.

Los Angeles, August 16, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2020).  

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