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I Vitelloni: The Criterion Collection

Before committing the term "paparazzo" to the worldwide lexicon through the name of the shutterbug character played by Walter Santesso in La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini exerted his linguistic influence nationally by pioneering a figurative Italian term for aimless provincial young men who've failed to move beyond their place of birth. There's a chance that, had Fellini made La Strada his follow-up to the disappointing The White Sheik as intended, his coining of "vitellonismo" might've had a wider international impact; however, this is assuming that, following the circus melodrama's enormous success, he would've bothered to make I Vitelloni at all. For this small, neorealistic 1953 film was actually an unintended way-station between The White Sheik and La Strada — an opportunity to prove to potential investors that he could deliver a hit. He did, but the scope of the success was limited initially to Italy, where the film won the Silver Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival. Interestingly, the picture wouldn't catch on in America for another four years. By the time it was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1958, Fellini had already made four more films and established himself as one of the most celebrated directors in the world. Those subsequent films — particularly La Strada, Il Bidone and Nights of Cabiria — were region-specific chronicles of the dispossessed, but, in all actuality, I Vitelloni, with its universal depiction of men in their late twenties and early thirties yearning to leave home, would've probably been more readily accepted by American audiences. Realistically, its day has passed, but, curiously, the film has attained a newfound relevancy in light of the growing American phenomenon of twentysomething men who are slow to flee the roost.

The titular loafers are a tight-knit, exclusionary group of five friends whiling away their days in unemployed splendor in their hometown of Rimini. The film opens with the boys joining in the revelry of the traditional end-of-summer festival where the townspeople crown a Miss Mermaid. This year, the honor is conferred upon Sandra, the sister of Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), who serves as the gentle, daydreaming conscience of the vitelloni. What should be the happiest day of Sandra's life suddenly is suddenly stained with the revelation, after a telltale fainting spell, that she is pregnant. The father is Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), the ladykiller of the vitelloni, and, rather than honorably face his dishonorable parental obligations, he endeavors to run. Unfortunately for him, he is still reliant on his father for funds, who, when apprised of his son's scandal, withholds the money; thus, forcing Fausto to end his caddish career and marry the girl. As the couple honeymoon in Rome, the dynamic seems to shift within the remaining vitelloni, particularly with Moraldo, who's given to stargazing with a young train station employee. Of the other friends, Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste), grows more serious about his aspiring playwriting career, while Alberto (Alberto Sordi), a pudgy and genial tenor, contends with his sister's looming elopement with one of the town's undesirables. When Fausto finally returns, he finds himself saddled with a job (his first, it appears) selling valuable religious statues. Already restless, he begins plotting to have an affair with a married woman he meets, with Sandra at his side, at the cinema, as well as the bookish older wife of his employer. Fausto's supreme carelessness dictates that none of this will end well. Meanwhile, Leopoldo is eventually presented with an opportunity to hand his play off to a legendary Italian actor passing through town, only to discover, horrified, that the old man's interest in his work is less ardent than his interest in him sexually.

*          *          *

Easily the most heartfelt picture of Federico Fellini's career (8 1/2 is far more cerebral in its anguish), there is something gratifyingly undisciplined about I Vitelloni. The film opens so hectically that the voice-over introductions — lifted directly, but expanded upon by Martin Scorsese for the club sequence in Goodfellas — hardly stick with the viewer; it's not until the beach sequence that we get a substantial sense of who these men really are (save for Fausto, who's tangibly established through the opening crisis, and remains the most fully drawn of the vitelloni despite his callousness, which is the counterpoint to Moraldo's soulful conscientiousness). And once they've been exposed as little more than amiably freeloading drifters, one's affections can only go so far. In this respect, it's very much the anti-American Graffiti; a mural of adult ennui that is as pathetic as it is amusing. At (or nearing) 30, none of these men have much to offer the world outside of Rimini. Only Leopoldo envisions making a name for himself outside of the provinces, but the play through which he intends to accomplish this is, it is implied, long-winded and without merit (as any work by a man who's steadfastly refused to experience the world throughout his formative years would be). In the end, it's Moraldo who, like Fellini, quits Rimini, but it's unclear, as he rolls out of the train station in that indelible final succession of shots, what he will do. Though much is made of Moraldo's character serving as Fellini's surrogate, he's leaving Rimini a full ten years later, and there's a strange emotional disconnect because of this. Finally, I Vitelloni is Fellini's putting away of childish things through a phenomenon observed rather than experienced, and its slight coldness (despite it being the warmest of his works) presages the cultured, cynical, better Fellini to come.

The Criterion Collection presents I Vitelloni in a pretty solid full-frame transfer that shows minimal wear-and-tear, with a Dolby Digital 1.0 track that is as cleaned up as can be expected. Extras are spare, but even in brevity Criterion shames most DVD producers with a lone featurette titled "Vitellonismo" (35 min.), which features entertaining remembrances and thoughtful analysis from collaborators (Interlenghi, Trieste, assistant director Moraldo Rossi) and aficionados (biographer Tullio Kezich, and Fellini Foundation director Vittorio Boarini). Also included are a still and publicity gallery, and an essay by novelist Tom Piazza. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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