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I VITELLONI

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Franco Interlenghi, Alberto Sordi, Franco Fabrizi, Leopoldo Trieste, Riccardo Fellini, Leonora Ruffo
Director:  Federico Fellini
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  August 24, 2004

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know…but I’m leaving.”

Film ****

For Federico Fellini, every film was like a litmus test of his audience, and though many fans proclaim him one of cinema’s truest visionaries, they tend to argue over just what pictures made or broke the maestro’s reputation.  For the fans of later works like Fellini Satyricon or Juliet of the Spirits, they prefer the reckless, stylistic abandon that characterized the filmmaker in those years, and tend to see earlier works such as Nights of Cabiria or Variety Lights as exercises in banality.

But other fans (myself included, I must admit), prefer the more sincere emotional purity of early Fellini.  While we still appreciate the imagination and chutzpah that went into pictures like Satyricon or Roma, we still regard them as movies with spirit but whose hearts were crushed under the weight of their excesses.

As such, some Fellini fans turn up their nose to his acclaimed 1953 offering I Vitelloni, while others proclaim it as possibly the greatest picture he ever made.  No matter which side you’re on, you could easily argue that I Vitelloni is the least Fellini-esque film the maestro offered, which is why it either stands out as one of his greatest triumphs or one of his frowning disappointments.  Considering the film has either been out of print or only available on really terrible video copies until now, this new Criterion offering is sure to stoke the debate again.

Perhaps fans of later Fellini would be better of temporarily misplacing his name when sitting down to this movie for the first time.  Don’t expect to see stylings that aren’t there, and you won’t be disappointed.  Instead, you should let yourself be engrossed by a terrifically told story of older youths and their restless inability to mature even though their lives are constantly filled with reminders that they can’t be adolescents forever. 

This is a picture that inspired future classics like Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets or Barry Levinson’s Diner.  Five twenty-something friends who have continued to live like teens throughout their young adult life are coming to various crossroads.  There is Moraldo (Interlenghi), the conscience of the group who seems to be maturing faster than his friends.  There’s the womanizing Fausto (Fabrizi), who tries to leave town in the middle of the night when he learns he’s impregnated Moraldo’s sister Sandra (Ruffo), but whose father forces him into fulfilling his duties and marrying her.  There’s the aspiring writer Leopoldo (Trieste), who dreams of making it big but comes to learn that even dreams coming true can carry a price.  And there’s Alberto (Sordi), a sensitive mama’s boy whose younger sister is growing up faster than he is.  The fifth friend is the tenor Riccardo (Fellini’s own younger brother), who doesn’t get to share much in the goings-on.

All men still live at home, most are under or unemployed and get by scrounging off their moms, pops and sisters.  None are looking toward the future any further than their next good time or big conquest.  But all are at a stage where they’ve been living carefree for far too long and life is about to start closing in.  Fausto in particular is a man given every chance to right his life, with a beautiful and loving bride and a baby on the way, and family members who want to see him do good and hook up with a job.  But he seems to try and ruin everything every chance he gets.  He can’t even go to the movies without hitting on some strange woman.  He even gets smitten with his new boss’s middle aged and unattractive wife, and unwisely acts on it.  He’s the character most likely to remind you of someone you know, or maybe even of yourself when you were young and foolish.

His moral opposite is Moraldo, who is loyal and thoughtful, and growing increasingly aware that the way he and his friends live is a dead end existence.  It’s a fitting finale to his character that we see him finally getting away, though he knows not to where or to what, while we last glimpse his friends still asleep in their various beds.

This is a solid character driven picture filled with laughter and tears, and represents the best of Fellini’s insights into human nature before he got so carried away with expressing larger themes in more and more gauche ways.  Though his movies frequently featured characters in some kind of state of arrested development or perpetual immaturity, he never quite touched on it in such a strong way as he did in I Vitelloni, nor did he ever develop it as fully.  Despite being over 50 years old, the film manages to unearth enough essential truths about youth vs. maturity that make it resonate honestly even with audiences today.

By the way, the title roughly translates to “young calves”, i.e., the ones just about ready for the slaughterhouse.

Video ***

I mentioned previous video prints looking quite horrific…thankfully for DVD, Criterion came to the rescue.  They’ve treated their library of Fellini titles well, and this release is no exception:  despite the age, the black and white print looks as well or better than could be hoped for, with clean images, crisp lines, dark blacks and near pure whites.  Very little artifacts of aging can be seen…a spot here, a scratch there, but again, a vast improvement over how fans had to watch this title before.  Very nicely done.

Audio **

The original mono soundtrack is adequate, though as with most Fellini films, the audio was post dubbed and frequently noticeable.  Nino Rota’s music score is a definite plus.  For the age, it’s a fairly clean presentation, without a lot of distracting background noise or dropouts.

Features **1/2

The extras include a brand new documentary Vitellonismo featuring interviews with cast members and Fellini collaborators and experts, plus the original trailer and a stills gallery.

Summary:

I Vitelloni may not be every Fellini fan’s cup of tea, but I dare say it’s one of the maestro’s best and purest offerings.  I’m grateful to see this classic coming to DVD via Criterion, who thankfully gave fans the kind of home video presentation they’ve been missing out on for far too long.

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