I Vitelloni, neorealism

Kino International has released a 50th anniversary print of Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), which I had the pleasure of watching this week.

If I had to choose one aesthetic movement in film that I find the most personally invigorating, it would likely be neorealism. A short-lived but potent eruption in postwar Italian literature and filmmaking (roughly ’45-’53), it is commonly identified with the aesthetics and particularities of its first critical and popular success, Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945): simple plots and location shooting, nonprofessional actors playing working class people whose lives are complicated by social turmoil. While these elements can certainly be traced through many early neorealist films (and even in contemporary Iranian cinema) they merely comprise specifics of style illustrating a deeper philosophical interest in exposing truth and human behavior beneath the gaze of established narrative filmmaking.

When several of the neorealist filmmakers (such as Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti) began experimenting with subjects and settings beyond the realm of social realism, they were roundly accused of abandoning neorealist ideals. But neorealism’s commitment to humanist values and unflinching honesty remained firmly intact in the work of these directors. (“One can’t help being interested in other subjects and problems and trying new directions,” Rossellini once said. “One can’t forever shoot films in bombed cities.”)

In his book, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (1983), Peter Bondanella describes the surface transitions of neorealism and its deeper consistency:

Certainly the cinema neorealists turned to the pressing problems of the time–war, the Resistance and the Partisan struggle, unemployment, poverty, social justice, and the like–but there was never a programmatic approach to these questions or any preconceived method of rendering them on celluloid. And the phenomenon was clearly unlike other avant-garde movements in the sense that it never adhered to a governing manifesto or ever felt one was even necessary. [See Dogme 95 by way of contrast. –DC] In short, neorealism was not a “movement” in the strictest sense of the term. The controlling fiction of neorealist films, or at least the majority of them, was that they dealt with actual problems, that they employed contemporary stories, and that they focused on believable characters taken most frequently from Italian daily life. . . . Thus, any discussion of Italian neorealism must be broad enough to encompass a wide diversity of cinematic styles, themes, and attitudes. No single or specific approach was taken and, therefore, much of the discussion which arose in the next decade over the “crisis” of neorealism or its “betrayal” by various directors was essentially groundless and founded upon ideological disagreements between various critics rather than any abrupt change on the part of the filmmakers themselves. Directors we label today as neorealists were a crucial part of a more general postwar cultural revolution which was characterized by a number of aesthetic and philosophical perspectives, all united only by the common aspiration to view Italy without preconceptions and to develop a more honest, ethical, but no less poetic cinematic language.

Although Fellini did not direct any of the seminal neorealist films, he wrote or contributed to many of their scripts, including Rossellini’s Open City, Paisan (1946), and L’Amore (1948), as well as screenplays for Pietro Germi and Alberto Lattuada. When Fellini started making his own films (beginning with Variety Lights in 1950, a film he co-directed with Lattuada) his early films exhibited a fascinating medium ground between the early neorealist pictures and his increasing emphasis on illusion and fantasy and the inner lives of his characters. While I myself am not particularly fond of Fellini’s late films, over the years I’ve discovered that his two thematic trilogies produced prior to La Dolce vita (1960) are extraordinary character studies with a great deal of thematic nuance. The first three, Variety Lights, The White Sheik (1952), and I Vitelloni are films about people with immature or underdeveloped illusions who are forced to confront reality; the second three, La Strada (1954), Il Bidone (1955), and The Nights of Cabiria (1956), are films about people who go one step further and actually experience a deep epiphany or inner conversion.

Kino’s new print of I Vitelloni (the dialogue-less trailer can be viewed here or at Kino’s site) presents an ideal opportunity to revisit the film. Like Fellini’s own childhood, it is set in the provinces and deals with four 20-something loafers, or vitellones, who collectively find they cannot continue living in the whimsical, self-absorbed, carousing manner of their youth, harboring the same illusions, and that life through such a lense is simply a mask keeping them from genuine self-reflection. Fausto is a playboy who begrudgingly marries a young woman he impregnates; Alberto is a compulsive gambler who borrows money from his sister and then condemns her lifestyle; Leopoldo is a mediocre playwright who lounges about in cafÈs and quotes Hemingway but never moves forward in his career; Moraldo is a quiet observer who occasionally provides the voice of reason in the group, but he is also tragically tied to his past rather than his future.

The film is set within milieus that would become Fellini’s stock-in-trade: parties and carnivals, theatrical venues and beauty pageants. The vitellones exist in a world of artiface and occasionally catch glimpses of the world beneath it in several evocative scenes: the vitellones stroll along a deserted beach and gaze into a featureless ocean, they force family members to abandon them in their irresponsibility and stagger drunkenly through trashed and vacant streets the morning after a raucous dance. Although the plot moves between set pieces, its dramatic structure is centered on the characters, individuals caught between terminal stasis and illegitimate dreams.

I Vitelloni was Fellini’s first internationally distributed film, and it’s easy to see why: he smoothly transitions between its two thematic realms, creating a vivid portrait of a universally meaningful stage of human development that requires permanent personal reckonings, and Nino Rota’s elegiac score gracefully intensifies its mood. Although the society the film describes is peripheral to its focus, the movie’s simultaneously critical and compassionate attention toward its characters is rendered with the same clarity and passion for truth as the neorealist films that preceded it.