Growing up in Fellini's shadow

I Vitelloni is a masterpiece of youthful ennui, but has the director's message been misunderstood, asks Geoffrey Macnab

Picture a small Italian seaside town not long after the Second World War. Unemployment is high. Grown men are still living with their parents. The town has that seedy, faded quality British readers might associate with the Brighton described by Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton. This is the setting for Federico Fellini's 1953 classic I Vitelloni (re-released today)

Strutting around the streets and cafés as if they own them are five young spivs. They idle their days away playing pool, womanising, dreaming of the big city, and desperately trying to put off the moment when they're going to have to face up to their adult responsibilities.

Fifty years on, it's hard to tell whether I Vitelloni (whose title translates as "overgrown young calves") was Fellini's lament for lost youth or a very barbed and satirical look at small-town Italian machismo, pretension and provincialism. What lends the film its fascination is the ambivalence with which Fellini treats his protagonists. When we first encounter them, on a windy night at a beauty contest, they seem dashing and charming. They're well-dressed and good-looking. But the more we learn about the five young, would-be heroes, the more empty and pathetic their lives begin to seem.

There's Leopoldo, the aspirant playwright who scarcely writes a word; Fausto, the womaniser forced into marriage because he got his girlfriend pregnant; Alberto, the moralist who sponges off his sister; Riccardo, the overweight narcissist who forlornly examines his flab in the mirror every night; and Moraldo, the quietest and most self-effacing of the group. Their high jinks are undermined right at the outset by the wistful voice-over and by Nino Rota's melancholy music.

I Vitelloni is far less well-known that many of Fellini's later films. He made it at a period when he was struggling to raise the finance for La Strada (1954). His previous film, The White Sheik (1952), his first as sole director, had flopped, and it looked as if his career, like those of the five young spivs themselves, was going nowhere.

The influence of the neo-realists is apparent throughout the movie. The great neo-realist scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini had exhorted young Italian film-makers to go out into the streets, onto buses and onto trams, and to "steal" their stories from "real life." In a sense, this was what Fellini (who had worked as Rossellini's assistant) was doing. There's also a strong autobiographical undertow to the project. During the late 1930s, Fellini and his friends at high school had led precisely the meandering and idle life that is depicted here.

The Cold Mountain director Anthony Minghella takes a surprisingly upbeat view of I Vitelloni, describing it as "Fellini at his most unaffected and human; a brilliant, touching and funny movie. Anybody who was ever young and a dreamer will think this film is about them." The film is indeed moving, and often very funny. The philandering Fausto's epic quest to find his wife (who has walked out on him) is presented as a mini-comic odyssey (watching the friends as they hang about on the streets or in bars, it's easy to see from where Barry Levinson's Diner, and many other rites-of-passage movies stretching all the way down to Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, drew their inspiration). Nonetheless, I Vitelloni is surely much darker than Minghella suggests.

Though less flamboyant than much of its director's subsequent work, the film still places a strong emphasis on the carnivalesque and the grotesque. We're made painfully aware that the five young chancers are trapped in a town which oppresses them. Their attempts at escape are invariably stymied. Fausto's father won't let him run away from a pregnant girl. Alberto has an elderly mother to support.

In probably the cruellest scene in the film, the would-be playwright is lured onto a pier by a famous actor who happens to be passing through town. Leopoldo thinks the actor (a leering, obese figure) wants to buy his play when all the actor really wants is to seduce him.

"I Vitelloni was a great influence on me, and was one of the pictures that gave me the courage to make a film about my own friends and myself - Mean Streets," Martin Scorsese wrote in his Sight and Sound obituary of Fellini, who died on 31 October 1993. At first glance, the comparison seems baffling. The charming but feckless middle-class kids in I Vitelloni seem a long way removed from small-time hoods like Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who are mixed up with the Mafia in New York's Little Italy. Then again, the five spivs in Fellini's film aren't that far removed from a life of crime. Without their charm and vitality, they'd seem little more than spongers and petty thieves.

It's fascinating to speculate what became of the four who were left behind in the small town. Fellini briefly considered making a sequel, and even wrote a script (never filmed) about what happened to the one kid who escaped - as the director himself did - from his dead-end, provincial background.

For those who remained, the prognosis was grim. Charming and funny though Fellini may make their adolescent antics appear in retrospect, these young bucks have no prospects. Boredom, alcoholism and poverty beckon. Alberto realises as much when, drunk and in drag after the all-night party at which the whole town throws loose its inhibitions for once in the year, he whimpers to his closest friend: "You're nobody. Everybody here is nobody."

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