I Vitelloni

A middling work from Fellini that nonetheless inspired Scorsese's Mean Streets.



Few artists can boast so idiosyncratic a style that their very name becomes an adjective. Fewer still are the attributive cinematic surnames, for it is a rare director or actor who has sufficient genius and tenacity to overcome the industry's economics and place an indelible stamp on film history.


Yet say the word Felliniesque and an entire world springs to mind, one of young Italian boys and sultry, voluptuous women, childlike wonder and middle-aged world-weariness, Roman perversity and provincial simplicity, carnivals and orgies and all of it fueled by a creative imagination unparalleled in cinema's sole century.


The expressive power of Italian director Federico Fellini's work made him one of the most beloved of international filmmakers. Fellini had a rare ability to tap into the primal pleasure that movies provide: their sense of spectacle, that of a child seeing a movie for the first time and wondering if the events taking place on the screen could possibly be real.


Perhaps that's why Fellini's third film, 1953's I Vitelloni, just released on Criterion DVD, feels so disappointing. I Vitelloni, which translates as large, young calves or overgrown calves, is a semi-autobiographical tale about five men in a small, seaside Italian town. The themes that would develop in Fellini's later pictures, especially the bridge between youth and maturity, are apparent throughout. Yet I Vitelloni is the most subdued in style of Fellini's early works, an abrupt transition from the innocent romanticism of his previous film, The White Sheik, which would flower into the heart-rending melancholy of his 1954 classic La Strada.


I Vitelloni is the story of Fausto, a womanizing cad who is forced into marriage after getting a girl pregnant. His friends yearn to move on to bigger things, but lack the courage to leave home. Instead they play pool and drink, adolescent boys trapped in 20-something bodies.


In his acclaimed documentary My Voyage to Italy, Martin Scorsese mentions I Vitelloni as a major influence on his 1973 film Mean Streets. Despite the praise, Fellini's film feels more restrained than subtle. His camera is relatively stationary, and the film's few close-upsóa gap-toothed, leering homosexual actor; giant carnival masksólack the surreal, larger-than-life quality that would make Fellini's films so distinctive. For all its whimsical touches, I Vitelloni is more neo-realist than phantasmagoric.


There is a paradox at the heart of most Fellini films, but in this case it's one imposed from outside: I Vitelloni is a tale of stunted youth best enjoyed by those who equate Felliniesque with garish puerility.


--Joshua Avram

Back to Film Reviews page