I Vitelloni Review
Looking at the lives of a group of friends in a small provincial seaside town, their dreams and illusions set against the reality of a lack of prospects, I Vitelloni is set in recognisably early Fellini neorealist territory, but its autobiographical content is handled with the director’s characteristic bittersweet warmth, affection and humour. Fellini labels these not so young group of boys of a certain age – hitting 30, unmarried and unemployed, still living with their parents, hanging out with their friends at bars and picking up girls – as i vitelloni, the “young calves” or as it is better translated by the subtitling on this DVD, “young bucks”, for whom idleness is a way of life.
I Vitelloni looks at the lives of five of these young bucks, who collectively prowl the streets when the bars close, singing and dancing and good naturedly fooling around before heading home since, living in a small provincial seaside resort, there’s nothing much else to do. Cold winter Sundays are spent standing around on a deserted beach, looking expectantly out to sea, imagining all the possibilities that are open to them, all the dreams they hope will come true, but not doing anything about it and not being too concerned about it either. However one of the group, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) - the narrator of the story, knows that this inertia is fatal, that the characters are doomed to never achieve anything and they will all end their days in the town, their lives unchanged. He is determined to escape the fate that remaining there will mean.
The film focuses on another of the group of friends, Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) to follow the typical trajectory of the vitellone. It’s 1953 and the Miss Siren contest ends, both literally and figuratively, in a storm when it becomes known that the winner, Sandra – Moraldo’s sister – is pregnant. The father is his friend Fausto, the biggest womanising scoundrel in the group. Fausto's natural reaction on hearing the news is to run off to Milan, trying to convince Moraldo that he is in no position to do the honourable thing until he can find himself a job. His father has other ideas however and a wedding is hastily arranged. On their return from their honeymoon in Rome, Sandra’s father gets Fausto a job working in a shop that sells religious objects. It’s not the kind of life that the glamorous young dandy – freshly back from Rome with a rakish moustache – expected, but he has little alternative. A married man with a child on the way, he has responsibilities now, but old habits die hard and it’s not long before he’s returning to his womanising ways.
The other characters lives are destined to take similar trajectories. Alberto (Alberto Sordi) is a family man, living with his mother and sister. He worries about an affair his sister is conducting with a married man, but she, like everyone else, is trying to find the only means of escape that is open to her. Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) is the intellectual of the group, making slow but determined progress on the great play he is writing, imagining the glamour of exploring the world like Hemingway, and hoping that, when a famous actor arrives in town to perform in a variety show and shows interest in his work, that his opportunity has come. Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini) is getting older and getting fatter and still living with his mother. He has a beautiful singing voice, but it will never be heard by anyone outside the small town. Moraldo is the quiet one, a dreamer like the rest of them, but he is determined to leave the town, otherwise life would be unbearable.
You’ll find echoes of I Vitelloni in many of Fellini’s subsequent films – the small town setting and colourful characters is returned to with similar warmth and affection in Fellini’s reminiscences of Rimini in Amarcord. Even Fellini's treatment of the life of Casanova seems to be based upon an image of him as the ultimate vitellone. Moraldo here is the prototype for Marcello Mastroianni’s character in La Dolce Vita - the young man from the provinces in thrall to the bright lights and glamour of the big city. The young boy who Moraldo befriends in I Vitelloni also serves a similar function to the young girl at the end of La Dolce Vita, here representing an innocence lost, a youth that must be left behind and the opportunity to be born again to a new way of living. As a Fellini surrogate, the young man who makes his escape from the small town life (and perhaps significantly, it is Fellini’s voice we hear dubbed over Interlenghi, saying his farewell at the end of the film) is also followed through in Fellini’s Roma and Intervista. Although knowledge of the background of the characters is clearly defined by Fellini in all these films, in I Vitelloni we see that background treated in detail.
I Vitelloni is a lovely little film that has the same bittersweet edge of most of Fellini’s films. There is true warmth and affection for friendships, for family, for youth and life in the provinces, but it is not motivated by sentiment or nostalgia, but from the point of view of the one who got away. Fellini shows the purity of these characters in all their glory, but shows life in the provinces for what it is and what it can do to all those hopes, talents and dreams, all of them destined to slowly age and fade in the closed and suffocating environment they live in.
I Vitelloni is released in the UK by Nouveaux Pictures. It is encoded for Region 2.
The DVD comes with a very impressive transfer. The black and white tones are just about perfect, the image clear, crisp and sharp. Beautifully restored and remastered, there is scarcely a mark on the print. There are a few wobbly frames here and there and a slight jump is occasionally visible in the transition between scenes, but other than one torn frame, there is nothing significant here. Negative grain is well contained and never causes a problem.
The audio track is also quite good. It is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, which my system picked up as Pro Logic, channelling the sound through the centre speaker, which is how you would expect the original mono soundtrack to sound. There is not much background noise and dialogue is always clear, if a little on the dull side. The odd pop and crackle gets through, but generally this is a fine, clear soundtrack.
English subtitles are in white font and are optional. The translation is generally good, but fails to translate a lot of small talk and incidental dialogue. None of it is essential to the story, and if you know the odd word of Italian you can get the gist fairly well, but it’s a little bit stingy all the same.
The extra features aren’t terribly generous either. We have a Trailer (3:55) from the period, which is excellent, selling the film on the identification factor with the viewer and perfectly capturing the tone and substance of the film. A Stills Gallery shows 12 images which seem to be taken directly from the film.
Comparison with US Criterion edition
The Nouveaux edition stands up very well against the Criterion and I think it is better in several aspects. The Criterion has the same restored transfer, so there is little qualitative difference in the condition of the print, however the Criterion image is noticeably darker, frequently losing shadow detail and emphasising the grain in the negative, but this gives the film an impression of extra sharpness. The audio track on the Criterion (Dolby Digital 1.0) is certainly inferior, though not greatly, with rather louder background hiss on the soundtrack. The Criterion is not packed with extra features either, but the 35 minute documentary featuring reminiscences of the making of the film with some of the actors, the assistant director and friend of Fellini, it is significant and full of fascinating information and anecdotes. Comparison screenshot images can be seen below – Nouveaux left, Criterion right. Click the images to enlarge.
I Vitelloni is a wonderful film, full of all the neorealist themes that characterise the best Fellini films of the period - The White Sheik, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria - and it is one of the essential building blocks that would lead to Fellini’s first masterpiece, La Dolce Vita. Like those films it is episodic in nature, yet it presents a complete picture of the lives of its characters, complete in tone and theme and perfectly balanced between humour, realism and autobiographical content. Nouveaux’s edition presents a superb transfer of this great film on a DVD that in some respects may be better than the Criterion release.