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I Vitelloni

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 17, 2015

A piquant morality tale. It’s not very circumspect, mind you. There’s too much glee in the bad behaviour, which is rendered with considerable intensity, frequency and authentic detail. I Vitteloni must have shocked the sheltered back in 1953. For all that, the moral material still registers very strongly, and very effectively. It does so in part because of the vividness of that bad behaviour. Another reason is the kindly sympathy extended toward the perpetrators.

Dilemma! Is this mercy, or rationalization? We’re accustomed to figuring out where the filmmaker might stand, or might have stood, before raising or lowering our thumbs on a film. We might worry about that less. Who can know the intents of the heart? What we can do is view generously, at the same time that we hold to our scruples.

Fellini, multi-demonstrable rascal though he may have been, models the right course for us here in the affection he universally proffers, and for his deft mixing of moods. He is not yet the full-fledged auteur—or arch-mannerist—but he certainly is getting his preoccupations in place, and dealing with them very productively. There are vividly skewed sequences like that drunken dance that occurs, aprés le bal. There are good gags, like when the lads give the raspberry to the workers and then promptly stall their car. As in the deepest of comedies, this brightness leads us gently into deeper territory.

It is here where that mixing of moods most profitably comes to the fore. As the plot goes forward things that seemed so blithe and careless emerge in a different light. Thoughtless indulgence and indiscretion lead to searing conflicts about the definitions, the gradations, the obligations of fidelity. In a film about friendship these are also, even more searchingly, the definitions and gradations of masculinity. And, for all the male-centredness of this film/oeuvre, of humanity. This obscure Adriatic village, with its bright beach-side days and dark nighttime streets, is very vividly and specifically laid out for our consideration. But as regionally specific as it is, the setting also registers as archetypal. It is pregnant with the possibility of pleasure, or of moral disaster, or of a redemption that could only be produced by the two of them, combined.

In this untidy celebration and exposé of masculinity aspiration and accomplishment intermingle, for characters and filmmakers both. Not everything works, completely. That symbolically innocent child, so reminiscent of, or rather so looking forward to the one that concludes Fellini’s later infernal morality tale, La Dolce Vita, seems too easy, too empty. But that was Fellini, wasn’t it? (Picture those processions in La Strada, and Nights of Cabiria. Admire/abhor the astonishing facility and self-absorption that characterized and increased in the films, going forward.) Always over-reaching, with so much of his best contained in his seeming worst.

And here also, as in most everything Fellini made, whether wholly successful or wildly dubious, there are grace notes. Two male friends, doing the mambo on the street. The superb climax to one of the main character’s plot-long perfidy: his decent, long-suffering father pummels the worthless boy while his decent, long-suffering employer stands guard. And after this proper comeuppance, they all part so lovingly.

The final sequential quadruple camera movement!