As summer draws to a close, a violent downpour interrupts a beach-side beauty pageant in a provincial town on the Adriatic coast. Sandra Rubini (Leonora Ruffo), elected "Miss Siren of 1953", suddenly grows upset and faints: rumours fly that she’s expecting a baby by inveterate skirt chaser Fausto Moretti (Franco Fabrizi). Under pressure from Francesco (Jean Brochard), his respectable father, Fausto agrees to a shotgun wedding. After the sparsely attended middle-class ceremony, the newlyweds leave town on their honeymoon.
Unemployed and living off their parents, Fausto's twenty-something friends kill time shuffling from empty cafés to seedy pool halls to aimless walks across desolate windswept beaches. During the interim, they perform immature pranks. Taunting honest road workers from the safety of a luxury car they never earned, they're given a sound thrashing when it breaks down.
Moraldo Rubini (Franco Interlenghi), Sandra's brother and the youngest of the five vitelloni, uncomfortably observes Fausto's womanizing as he ponders his own existence, dreaming of ways to escape to the big city. Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini), the baritone, nourishes unrealistic ambitions to sing and act. Alberto (Alberto Sordi), the daydreamer, is supported by his mother and self-reliant sister, Olga (Claude Farell). Vulnerable and effeminate, he's unhappy that Olga is secretly dating a married man. Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste), the aspiring dramatist, writes a play that he discusses with Sergio Natali (Achille Majeroni), an eccentric stage actor he hopes will perform in it.
Back from his honeymoon and settled in with Sandra, Fausto is forced to accept a job as a stockroom assistant in a religious-articles shop owned by Michele Curti (Carlo Romano), a friend of his father-in-law's. Incorrigible, he pursues other women even in his wife's presence.
At the annual masquerade ball, Fausto is bedazzled by the mature beauty of Giulia Curti (Lída Baarová), his employer’s wife. Alberto, in drag and half-drunk, executes a surrealistic dance across the ballroom floor with a goofy carnival head made of papier-mâché. Returning home at dawn, Alberto is devastated to find his sister running off for good with her married lover. Fausto’s naive attempt to seduce Giulia results in his being humiliated and then fired by her husband. In revenge, he steals the statue of an angel in gold paint from his former employer, enlisting the loyal Moraldo to help him sell it to a monk. Suspicious, the monk turns down the offer. Fausto ends up giving the statue to a simple-minded peasant (Silvio Bagolini) who sets the angel on a mound outside his hovel, caressing it.
One evening after a variety show, Leopoldo agrees to accompany old Sergio for a walk along the seashore to discuss the merits of his play but when the actor propositions him, he takes to his heels in horror. Learning of Fausto’s one-night stand with an actress, Sandra runs away from home, taking the baby with her. Riccardo, Alberto, Leopoldo, and Moraldo all join in Fausto’s desperate search to retrieve his wife and child. When they find her at the home of Fausto’s father, Francesco pulls off his belt in a rage and finally whips his son. Later Fausto and Sandra walk home happily, with optimism about their life together. Resolved to abandon the provincial monotony of his dead-end town, Moraldo boards the train for anyplace else (Rome), imagining his vitelloni friends sleeping their lives away.Franco Interlenghi as Moraldo RubiniAlberto Sordi as AlbertoFranco Fabrizi as Fausto MorettiLeopoldo Trieste as Leopoldo VannucciRiccardo Fellini as RiccardoLeonora Ruffo as Sandra Rubini, Moraldo's sisterJean Brochard as Francesco Moretti, Fausto's fatherClaude Farell as Olga, Alberto's sisterCarlo Romano as Signore Michele CurtiLída Baarová as Signora Giulia CurtiEnrico Viarisio as Signore Rubini, Moraldo's fatherPaola Borboni as Signora Rubini, Moraldo's motherArlette Sauvage as mysterious women at the cinemaSilvio Bagolini as simple-minded peasantVira Silenti as GisellaAchille Majeroni as Sergio NataliMaja Nipora as Caterina, the soubrette
Having completed an early version of La Strada with co-screenwriter Tullio Pinelli in 1952, Fellini offered their "modern fairy tale" to producer Luigi Rovere with whom he was still under contract. Rovere had solid reasons for turning it down: apart from the script of La Strada being an unrecognizable genre, Fellini’s last film, The White Sheik, was a critical and commercial flop. In a show of soldarity, Rovere loaned the script to a Venetian professor of calligraphy turned film producer, Lorenzo Pegoraro, who had admired The White Sheik. Convinced that La Strada would never attract an audience, Pegoraro requested that Fellini develop a comedy instead. Biographers differ as to who conceived I Vitelloni. For Tullio Kezich, it was Fellini who hit on the idea “after an afternoon-long consultation" with Ennio Flaiano. For Hollis Alpert, it was Pinelli brain-storming with Fellini and Flaiano who came up “with a notion the other two liked: the pleasures and frustrations of growing up in a provincial town”. Under Fellini's supervision, all three wrote the script rapidly, pooling together adolescent memories while inventing new ones.
Distributors interested in the script demanded a title change: incomprehensible to a general audience, I vitelloni was a liability to an already risky venture. Fellini adamantly refused to change it, having chosen the film’s title after “being called a vitellone by an elderly woman expressing disapproval of one of his pranks”. For him, vitelloni were "the unemployed of the middle class, mother’s pets. They shine during the holiday season, and waiting for it takes up the rest of the year". According to biographer Alpert, the term was Romagnol for "veal, or calf... used to refer to callow youths". Today, the term is widely translated as "big calves".
The actual origin of the term has been defined as a cross between the Italian words for veal (vitello) and beef (bovino) implying “an immature, lazy person without a clear identity or any notion of what to do with his life". In a 1971 letter, co-screenwriter Ennio Flaiano offered a fuller meaning of the word: "The term vitellone was used in my day to define a young man from a modest family, perhaps a student – but one who had either already gone beyond the programmed schedule for his coursework, or one who did nothing all the time... I believe the term is a corruption of the word vudellone, the large intestine, or a person who eats a lot. It was a way of describing the family son who only ate but never 'produced' – like an intestine, waiting to be filled."
Despite his reputation as box office poison, and against Pegoraro’s express wishes, Fellini once again cast Alberto Sordi in a major role. Intent on playing the lead, however, Sordi didn’t accept Fellini’s offer until later in production. Pegoraro’s skeptical distributors, far from closing the deal, demanded a clause in the contract banning Sordi’s name from theatrical posters. To make matters worse, Fellini also cast Leopoldo Trieste (the lead in The White Sheik fiasco) as the budding dramatist, and his brother Riccardo, a total unknown, to interpret his own role. Further unknowns included Franco Interlenghi and Leonora Ruffo who had just wrapped on The Queen of Sheba. Although Czech actress Lída Baarová had a cult following, she was more famous for her love affair with Nazi Joseph Goebbels than for any of her film roles. Fellini topped things off by casting Franco Fabrizi as Fausto, an actor who began his film career in 1950 with Michelangelo Antonioni's Chronicle of a Love but bombed two years later in Christ Passed by the Barn. Pressured by his financial backers – a Florentine business group and the Paris-based Cité Film, Pegoraro finally balked at the lack of a star. “Sordi makes people run away," he complained to Fellini. "Leopoldo Trieste is a nobody. Meet me half way – bring in a name."
To placate him, Fellini contacted Vittorio De Sica, hoping to convince him to play the part of Sergio Natali, the aging ham actor. When Fellini outlined the homosexual overtones of the role, De Sica accepted provided it was written with "a great deal of humanity". In the end, he rejected the offer, "concerned about being marked as actually gay". Fellini then decided that De Sica would have been "too nice, too fascinating, too distracting" and cast Achille Majeroni, a respected stage actor, in the part.
Filming and editing
Described as an "itinerant production", shooting was tailored to accommodate Sordi’s variety show schedule, requiring Fellini and his troupe to follow him from town to town across Italy. On tour in the Big Ruckus, Sordi rehearsed his role and was ready for filming during his hours off. Accordingly, when the actor toured Florence, shooting began as an all-night party at the city's Teatro Goldoni in early December 1952. Supervised by production manager Luigi Giacosi whom Fellini first met while on location in Tripoli during the war, and lensed by veteran cinematographer Otello Martelli, the rushes served as the basis of the masquerade ball, a major sequence. With a break in production for Christmas, shooting resumed on January 15, 1953. Constrained by the shoestring budget, many scenes were shot in a natural decor. In Ostia, a quay provided the winter setting for Fausto and his gang to wander around listlessly staring at the sea. In Fiumicino, the terrace of the Kursaal Hotel was the backdrop for the beauty pageant that opens the film. Accustomed to movies produced on promises, Giacosi maintained morale by ensuring that cast and crew dined in the best restaurants in the towns they visited.
Working with several cinematographers over a six-month period, Fellini developed a predominant camera style based on slow tracking shots that "match the listless, purposeless lives" of his characters. Zooms underscored dramatic events, most notably when Sandra falls ill at the beauty pageant, after the birth of her child, and when Francesco beats his wayward son.
With editor Rolando Benedetti, Fellini established a rhythm in which short sequences were separated by abrupt cuts while longer sequences used dissolves. The numerous brief and disparate episodes "governed by their own internal logic" were thus held together by a particular editing pattern. A freeze-frame was used to immobilize the young Guido, Moraldo’s friend, at the end of the film when he balances himself on a railtrack.
Italy and France
Screened in competition at the 14th Venice International Film Festival on 26 August 1953, the film was awarded the Silver Lion by Italian poet Eugenio Montale who headed the jury, along with a public ovation and acclaim from the majority of critics. "Belying all doubts about its appeal", the film opened on September 17, 1953 to both commercial and critical success.
Reviewing for La Stampa, Mario Gromo argued that it was a "film of a certain importance because of its many intelligent moments, its sound portrayal of provincial life, and because it is the second film of a young director who evidently has considerable talent... The Italian film industry now has a new director and one who puts his own personal ideas before any of the customary traditions of the trade. Fellini's is a fresh approach". "It is the atmosphere that counts most in this unusual film," wrote Francesco Càallari of the Gazzetta del Lunedi, "an intensely human and poetical atmosphere altogether estranged from the provincialism of the setting... Fellini has something to say and he says it with an acute sense of observation... Here is someone apart from the other young directors of post-war Italian cinema. Fellini has a magical touch." First published 31 August 1953 in the Gazzeta del Lunedi (Genoa). After praising Fellini's Venice triumph, Ermanno Contini of Il Secolo XIX outlined the film's weaknesses: "I Vitelloni does not have a particularly solid structure, the story is discontinuous, seeking unity through the complex symbiosis of episodes and details... The narrative, built up around strong emotions and powerful situations, lacks solid organic unity, and at times this undermines the story's creative force, resulting in an imbalance of tone and pace and a certain sense of tedium. But such shortcomings are amply atoned for by the film's sincerity and authenticity." Arturo Lanocita of Corriere della Sera wrote: "I Vitelloni gives a graphic and authentic picture of certain aimless evenings, the streets populated by groups of idle youths... The film is a series of annotations, hints, and allusions without unity... With a touch of irony, Fellini tries to show the contrast between the way his characters see themselves and the way they really are. Despite its weaknesses, the film is one of the best in recent years." For Giulio Cesare Castello of Cinema VI, the film proved "that Fellini is the Italian film industry's most talented satirist, and an acute observer and psychologist of human behaviour. Like any good moralist, he knows how to give his story a meaning, to provide more than just simple entertainment".
Fellini's first film with international distribution, I Vitelloni did reasonable box office in England and North America while performing "huge in Argentina". Opening in France on 23 April 1954, it was especially well received. André Martin of Les Cahiers du Cinéma insisted that by "virtue of the quality of the narrative, and the balance and control of the film as a whole, I Vitelloni is neither commercial nor does it possess those traits that usually permit a work of art to be consecrated and defined. With a surprising and effective sense of cinema, Fellini endows his characters with a life both simple and real". Film critic Geneviève Agel appreciated the maestro's symbolism: "Fellini films a deserted piazza at nighttime. It symbolizes solitude, the emptiness that follows communal joy, the bleak torpor that succeeds the swarming crowd; there are always papers lying around like so many reminders of what the day and life have left behind."
I Vitelloni opened in the United States on 7 November 1956 to generally positive reviews. In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther reported that Fellini, with "his volatile disposition and a desire to make a stinging film... does certainly take a vigorous whiplash to the breed of over-grown and over-sexed young men who hang around their local poolrooms and shun work as though it were a foul disease. He ridicules them with all the candor of his sharp neo-realist style, revealing their self-admiration to be sadly immature and absurd. And without going into reasons for the slack state of these young men, he indicates that they are piteous and merit some sympathy too". For John Simon, Nino Rota's music was one "of the most brilliant features of the film... The first [of its two main themes] is a soaring, romantic melody that can be made to express nostalgia, love, and the pathos of existence... Slowed down, [the second main theme] becomes lugubrious; with eerie figurations in the woodwinds it turns sinister. The quicksilver changes in the music support the changing moods of the story".
The film was re-released internationally on the tenth anniversary of Fellini's death in 2003. For the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle noted that I Vitelloni was "a film of sensitivity, observation and humor – a must-see for Fellini enthusiasts and a worthwhile investment for everyone else. Those less taken by the maestro may find I Vitelloni to be a favorite among his works". Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune wrote: "In Italy, it remains one of Fellini's most consistently loved movies. It should be in America as well... If you still remember that terrific drunk scene, Alberto Sordi's pre-Some Like It Hot drag tango or the way the little boy balances on the train track at the end, you should know that this picture plays as strongly now as it did in 1956 or whenever you first saw it. I know I had a ball watching I Vitelloni again. It reminded me of the old gang."
One of Fellini's most imitated films, I Vitelloni inspired European directors Juan Antonio Bardem, Marco Ferreri, and Lina Wertmüller, and influenced Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973), and Joel Schumacher's St. Elmo's Fire (1985), among many others according to Kezich. These include Philip Kaufman's The Wanderers (1979). While Barry Levinson's Diner (1982) features a similar group of young men, Levinson has said he never saw I Vitelloni before making his own film.
In a 1963 edition of Cinema magazine, acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick cited the film as one of his top 10 favourite films.
WinsVenice Film Festival: Silver Lion; Federico Fellini; 1953.Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists: Silver Ribbon; Best Director, Federico Fellini; Best Producer; Best Supporting Actor, Alberto Sordi; 1954.
NominationsVenice Film Festival: Golden Lion; Federico Fellini; 1953.Academy Awards: Oscar; Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen, Federico Fellini (screenplay/story), Ennio Flaiano (screenplay/story) and Tullio Pinelli (story); 1958.