A Study of Aimless Young Men: Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni”

Directed by Federico Fellini 

Writers: Federico Fellini (story), Ennio Flaiano (story), 3 more credits »

(This week I am discussing another work of Federico Fellini’s. My plan is to continue to explore his career into the foreseeable future before I move on to another director’s work.)

After I graduated college, I was aimless.  I had no idea what I was supposed to do with my life nor any plans for a career. So I did what most 21 years olds do after college: I lived with my parents. I found a job, working 20 hours a week for the local newspaper writing high school sports stories and compiling stats. Working part-time allotted me a lot of free time, and I spent most of it with my childhood friends.

It was a diverse group. There was Eric, the white pothead with a girlfriend he wasn’t sure he loved; there was Dave, the loudmouth Chinese poker player who tried to hit on everything that moved; there was Francisco, the hothead of the group from El Salvador, who loved fast cars and women; there was Morgan, a Jewish kid, who  was quiet and introverted, preferring to spend his nights at home playing his guitar; and there was me, the wannabe writer who wanted nothing more then to get out that suffocating, tired town.

I spent many a night at the local casinos playing poker. Dave and I would sit down for 5 or 6  hours and play a variety of old degenerate gamblers or young kids chasing their poker dreams.  It was a remarkably easy game to beat, one that Dave and I would clean up on. Most nights we took in a $100 or more a session.

Afterwards we’d go drink at bars downtown and hit on women. Dave was more brash and outgoing than I was and some women loved it, but I did OK too. Most nights, however, we came home alone and played poker or whiffle ball on the empty suburban streets until 5 a.m.

Other nights were spent at coffee shops with Morgan where we’d smoke cigarettes over cappuccinos. After spending fours year in college reading Nietzsche, Rilke and Sarte, I had plenty to say about my boredom and ennui, and my mounting depression of leading a aimless, meaningless existence. Morgan, being the most similar to me, had similar things to say as well. “What the hell is the point?” seemed to be underlying question behind our talks.

Other nights I’d spend with Eric and Francisco smoking pot. We’d talk about women and sports and about what we expected out of our lives: wives and children, holidays to far away exotic places.

I vitelloni beach

We were all lonely and aimless. We had somehow expected our lives to miraculously work out, and that we’d be happy. But they weren’t. We were all searching, and this hometown of ours didn’t have any answers for our search. After awhile, I had enough and left for New York City for no other reason except that I needed to find my own answers. All of them stayed behind and when I come back to visit, all of them are leading lives not so different from what they were 9 years ago.

If I ever made a movie about those years, I imagine it would look a lot like Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni,” his second feature film. Despite Fellini being one of my three or four favorite directors and it being one of both Coppola’s and Kubrick’s favorite movies, and the film that most influenced Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” I had never seen “I Vitelloni” until recently. 

What strikes me is how conventionally shot “I Vitelloni,” as it has very few of the techniques that would later be called “Felliniesque.” There are no surreal or dreamlike characters or sequences, very few surprise closeups, which he used over and over again in his later works. Also the cinematic compositions lack the complexity of foreground and background that makes a Fellini scene so alive. The camera work in general is very static, much more in the vein of Italian neorealism, the school of film that changed cinema in the late 1940s and which focused more on the realistic portraits of everyday people.

But what it lacks in style, Fellini more than makes up for in substance. It is the first of his movies to explore one of his dominant themes: the tension between the wonder and awe of childhood and the practical realities of adult male life.

The movie focuses on a group of five friends who love in a small Italian town. Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) is the de facto leader of the group, a womanizer who knocks up Sandra (Leonora Ruffo) and is forced to marry her. The central drama of the film is Fausto’s continued attempts to rebel from his situation. Fausto is unable to let go of his adolescent ways and tries to bed woman after woman throughout the movie.  Sandra’s brother is Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the quietest and most thoughtful group. It is through Moraldo’s eye that the audience watches the film.

I Vitelloni playing pool

The five friends hang out together late into the night, drifting from parties to bars, meeting women and drinking till the early morning. They all live with their parents, who in sharp contrast to the young men, live solidly middle-class, practical lives. The parents own businesses or perform other work and never leave the town they were raised in. They live simple if unimaginative lives that let them survive day-to-day.

The men are all struggling with the idealism of their youth and practical realities of postwar Italy. They all want something more but they don’t know what that is. And because of that, almost all of them will eventually accept the life given to them, living and raising children in the same town and never seeing the world beyond it.

I vitelloni are you happy

In one remarkable scene, Moraldo is out walking at 3 a.m., and he runs into a train station attendant, a young boy named Guido. Moraldo asks Guido to sit down and talk to him for a moment. The boy seems genuinely happy and carefree, which seems to perplex Moraldo, and so Moraldo asks him, “Tell me, are you happy?” The boy’s answer is telling. “Why not?” he says. This young boy has accepted his existence in a way Moraldo cannot.

Moraldo’s struggle is the same struggle that my friends and I went through post-college and seems to be a universal feeling among men in the modern world. We know what culture expects of us: a good job, a family, a house. But that future seems so suffocating and pre-ordained for many of us. But we know few other alternatives. And so we drift from bar to bar, woman to woman, drug to drug, because it is pleasurable and is the only thing that makes sense. It numbs us from what is expected, dulls the anxiety of being unable to live up to what is wanted of us by the world. Eventually most of us must accept that practicality of what is expected of us and make choices so we will not be alone. But there are few that make other choices and try to lead a different life despite the consequences.

Moraldo is one of those people. In what is the first of many open-ended endings in Fellini’s films, Moraldo one day decides he is leaving the town. He doesn’t tell a soul, not his family or his friends. Fellini once remarked, “Our duty as storytellers is to bring people to the station. There each person will choose his or her own train… But we must at least take them to the station… to a point of departure.” Fellini’s metaphor is spelled out quite explicitly in the final scene of “I Vitelloni.”

It is a beautiful, striking scene. As the train pulls away and Guido waves goodbye to Moraldo, Fellini intercuts shots with Moraldo’s friends all asleep in their beds, which is how Moraldo says he will remember them. Moraldo knows they will never leave; he himself is unsure if this is the right choice. The ending scene is a brave one in that it makes choices most filmmakers would never go down. Instead of an arrival to a destination, the film ends on a departure away from the safe and known of Moraldo’s town to the adventure of the city. It is open ended, more akin to reality than the fairy tales often fed to us by the world. And in many ways this marks Fellini’s departure from his youth and arrival as a serious filmmaker.

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5 thoughts on “A Study of Aimless Young Men: Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni”

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