#5 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
I occasionally wonder why some foreign titles get translated and others don’t. I Vitelloni, the word, is a slang in the Italian dialect around Pescara, Italy that indicates young men who don’t really do anything. They don’t contribute, they just consume. Derived from the Italian word for intestine, the idea was that they just waited to digest, providing nothing else of value. Other times the word is translated to “the guys”. I cannot imagine referring to this movie as The Guys. It’s too off from the point of the original word which, when translated, provides a very pointed indication of what the movie is about that “the guys” simply misses completely. There’s no real word in the English language (“loafers” comes relatively close) that means the same thing, so I Vitelloni is probably the best title for it to have outside of Italy.
The vitelloni are five friends in a sleepy little seaside town. They are all distinct with different traits, but they all have the common issue of wanting to leave but never getting around to it. They always end up just coming back or simply not going at all. The most prominent of the five are Fausto, the lecher, Leopoldo, the playwright, Alberto, the singer, and Moraldo, who doesn’t do much but seems to be our point of view character. The film is narrated in words that sound like they come from one of the guys, but he refers to every one of them in the third person. The fifth guy is Riccardo, played by Fellini’s brother, and it’s a bit role that never really fleshes out.
The film is a loose collection of stories about our guys as they wrestle with life in their small town that they all seem incapable of enduring but they all endure nonetheless. Fausto gets Moraldo’s sister pregnant and must marry her, but he’s a complete lech who cannot help himself when he and Sandra, his wife, sit next to an attractive older woman in a theater. When the older woman leaves the theater, Fausto excuses himself to chase after her and try to sleep with her, which she rejects for she is married. Fausto’s father-in-law gets him a job in a small shop in town that sells religious statues, and through mere inertia he takes the job and works there for about a year, through the birth of his child. He eventually gets fired when he makes a heavy pass on the shop owner’s wife. In retribution, Fausto convinces Moraldo to help him steal an expensive statue which he tries to sell to the convent and monastery around the town, unsuccessfully.
Leopoldo works hard every night to advance his art, writing his plays with no recognition from those around him in his little provincial town. When a famous actor comes to play in the seaside community, Leopoldo is excited at the prospect of advancing his career through him, sharing one of his plays. When the older, rotund actor, in the middle of the night, suggestively tries to invite Leopoldo out onto the pier, Leopoldo runs away, dashing any hope for his use of the actor for his career.
Alberto contributes nothing to his house, but his sister does. At the same time his sister is involved with a married man, a relationship that shames Alberto, but he brings nothing into the house and his words of caution fall of deaf ears. When his sister runs off with her married suitor during Carnival, Alberto drunkenly lashes out at her to his mother, promising to get a job to help where his sister had.
In all three, we can see the germs of the ideas of leaving die away as all three end up finding ways to stay home. Fausto even goes with Sandra on a honeymoon to Rome, which enchants him as he brings back tales of the new dancing styles and sporting a mustache he affected in the Italian capitol, but he still comes back home. It’s only Moraldo who eventually just gets on a train one morning, without word to anyone save the young boy he had befriended who works at the train station, and just leaves with no idea of where he’s to go.
In all four of these young men, it seems, are facets of Fellini’s own personality. He was himself from a small provincial town, and when he first got to Rome as a young man he felt like he was finally home. He was permanently unfaithful to his wife, like Fausto. He had a deep artistic streak (obviously) like Leopoldo. He stayed with his mother in Rome when his sibling left at a young age, similar to what happens to Alberto. He also left his hometown of Rimini, much like Moraldo. And yet, it’s not an autobiography. For instance, Fellini was rather apolitical and Leopoldo is an admitted socialist.
A movie that’s as intensely personal as I Vitelloni was to Fellini needs to stand on its own. The connections to the author can be interesting (or not), but they’re ultimately secondary to the work itself. The real life connections can provide color after the fact, but the movie needs to work dramatically on its own, and I think it does wonderfully well. I Vitelloni is the story of people trapped where they were born. It’s a universal idea, applicable to any other place in the world, and the specifics of that place in the film are extremely well portrayed. The characters are clearly written. Fausto is a pig, through and through, until he gets a deep scare that might get him to go straight for a while. Leopoldo is earnest for artistic advancement but ends up knowing too little of the world around him. Alberto is a big personality but ultimately can’t leave his mother. And through it all is Moraldo who says little about himself and acts mostly as support to the other characters and our eyes into this strange little world. That he’s ready to simply up and leave despite the fact that he’s never really the focus of the action ends up making perfect sense as we watch dreams steadily die around him, and we can see it in his eyes as he says goodbye to the boy at the station that he can’t let that happen to himself. His specific dreams aren’t that important, but his desire to leave is.
It’s an interesting extension of the idea at the core of The White Sheik. In Fellini’s previous film, Wanda and Ivan had to confront the reality that their fantasies weren’t tied to reality. In this next film, the reaction to that confrontation is what defines everyone. Do they accede to the reality like most of the guys, or do they try to change something like Moraldo.
Fellini made something intensely personal and incredibly universal at the same time with I Vitelloni. There’s such a special feeling to it, and it marks the man’s first great film.