Federico Fellini never made a movie outside of Italy—let alone in Hollywood—but he was the most universally pop of post-war European auteurs. While his reputation peaked in the early ’60s, the Felliniesque remains. Nine (inspired by 8 1/2) continues on Broadway, there’s a retrospective at the Guggenheim, and this week, the maestro’s first international hit, I Vitelloni, celebrates its 50th anniversary with a run at Film Forum.
I Vitelloni—literally “the overgrown calves,” a sarcastic term for “young bloods”—is a tale of arrested development. The movie tracks the progress of a half-dozen twentysomething layabouts—including a relentless skirt-chaser (Franco Fabrizi) forced into marriage, a would-be playwright (Leopoldo Trieste), and a clownish mama’s boy (Alberto Sordi). Moving from cafés to poolrooms to movie theaters, it’s the prototypical male ensemble film. I Vitelloni‘s attitude informs an American “new wave” movie like Sidney Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman, but it came into its own as an influence with Mean Streets, American Graffiti, and especially Diner; descendants could legitimately include Seinfeld. As with many post-World War II Italian movies, unemployment is an underlying concern; Fellini, however, submerges social critique in nostalgia. Set in his hometown of Rimini, I Vitelloni is in some sense autobiographical. An intermittent voice-over pushes the action into the past, although it clearly unfolds in the 1953 present.
Like most Fellini films, I Vitelloni is best taken as a succession of set pieces—the sudden storm that wreaks confusion on a boardwalk beauty pageant—and interpolated variety acts. Fellini’s mode of comic pathos is a reinvention of the Chaplinesque. (Nino Rota’s enormously helpful score incorporates the waiter’s song from Modern Times.) Fellini’s own particular -esque is largely predicated on the moonlit magic of deserted streets and the forlorn poetry of a wintry beach or the way that a stolen life-sized angel winds up in the arms of the village idiot. His strongest metaphors invariably superimpose the stage on the world—a group of priests trotting along the ocean’s edge, the final shot of a boy (the only one in the movie with a steady job) balancing on the railroad track out of Rimini.
In addition to screening Fellini’s complete film oeuvre, a selection of his TV commercials, and four—count them, four—documentary portraits of the maestro, the Guggenheim is devoting a gallery to Fellini’s drawings, dream books, erotic doodles, and caricatures, some dating back to the mid 1930s. The most evocative are the portraits of his Cinecittà peers Vittorio De Sica, Anna Magnani, and especially Totò (who, recognized as a towering landmark, is the subject of nine views). Fellini never outgrew his love for comics—he carefully pastes a clipped image of Jiggs (of “Maggie and Jiggs”) into a sketch for an unrealized film—and their importance to his cartoonish movies is clearly a subject for further research.