This issue’s analysis complements our feature on Italian neo-realism by looking at one of the most well-known and influential examples, Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni. The semi-autobiographical story revolves around the lives of five aimless young men who dream of a life away from their provincial Italian town…
Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Federico Fellini and Ennio Flaiano
Synopsis: *Spoilers* As the summer of 1953 draws to a close in a provincial Italian town on the Adriatic coast, five friends reach turning points in their lives.
Unemployed playboy, Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) finds the walls closing in as his dalliance with Sandra (Leonora Ruffo), the local beauty queen, results in an unplanned pregnancy. Young Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), Sandra’s brother, watches his friend Fausto’s womanizing while dreaming of ways to escape to the bright lights of Milan.
Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini) habours unrealistic ambitions to become a singer. Alberto (Alberto Sordi) is unsettled when his independent sister, Olga (Claude Farell) runs away with a married man. Aspiring playwright, Leopoldo has the opportunity to discuss his new work with an eccentric stage actor he admires.
Analysis: *Spoilers* Anyone unfamiliar with Italian neo-realism and the work of Fellini might be scratching their head at the idea that, based on the above synopsis alone, I Vitelloni is considered both a classic and an influence on everything from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) to Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). However, this simple story of five young aimless men is actually an impressive character study that also captures the nation’s post-war mood. Critics also welcomed the film’s authenticity and, while some questioned the lack of dramatic structure, the rambling nature of I Vitelloni suits the tone.
The five friends are trapped by the own fears and insecurities rather than by the town in which they live. Each is capable of achieving more than they’ve settled for, but each has allowed themselves to get stuck in the rut of small-town life. They all feed off each other; spending their days ambling around town, taking trips to the windswept beach and nights out having juvenile fun. They are jobless, living with assorted relatives, with little to look forward to. Each event in their lives causes a little tremor, but never leads to an earthquake.
Leaving (or escape) – both physical and mental – is theme that runs through the film. Moraldo befriends a young boy who works at the train station; Fausto goes off to the big city on his honeymoon; Alberto’s sister leaves with her lover. Meanwhile the young men escape into their own worlds – womanizing, writing fiction, dressing up for carnival. But real life is never far away.
What can writers take away from I Vitelloni? Character studies can make excellent films, but there’s a fine line between subtlety and inaction. It’s important to get the balance right otherwise your film will lose emotional resonance.
By all means draw on your own life experiences, just remember a) film is a visual medium and b) you need to give audiences a reason to care about your characters. This can be a danger with auto-biographical stories. The material is so personal to the subject that they convince themselves everyone else will feel the same. The truth is that you need to make people care. How? By creating characters and situations that everyone can relate to – real life predicaments involving friends, family and future fears.
I Vitelloni is the prime example of this. It features characters with universal concerns, fears and character weaknesses. As such, it’s a blueprint for filmmakers looking to bring to life stories about the minutiae of life and the very human feeling that life is passing us by. To paraphrase the famous quote: Life happens while you’re busy making plans.
All of these themes are prevalent in any number of later movies, with mixed results. However, I Vitelloni remains a classic and an enduring influence because the film is a fine example of how something personal can have universal appeal.
Issue 11 of RSL is out on 26 October.