It was the 1950s and cinema was changing. The American studio system was struggling to satisfy an audience turning ever more to the accessibility of TV entertainment. Countries across the globe were building back their film industries after the cultural, economic and human devastation of WWII. And a series of shifts were occurring in not just how movies were made but in why they were made, in what they were made about, by whom and for whom.

First out of the gate were the Italian neorealists, shunning the elitist artificiality favoured by the country’s fascist political leaders in the 1930s and early ‘40s. Theirs was a versatile, universal style, raw and immediate, capable of adaptation and translation, thus making it an attractive alternative to American audiences growing weary of their own industry’s increasingly dated output. And critical to this new artistic movement was one Federico Fellini.

In 1953, Fellini bounced back from the relative disappointment of The White Sheik with I Vitelloni. It won him the top prize at that year’s Venice Film Festival alongside five other titles, sharing the honours with such noted, experienced filmmakers as Marcel Carné, John Huston and Kenji Mizoguchi. This was to be his breakthrough title, yet for Fellini it represented almost something of a regression. Whether one considers his two features preceding I Vitelloni vestiges of an older style or somewhat closer to Fellini’s highly stylized later work, his career took off not so much by his close association with the neorealist movement as by his distinctness from it, yet I Vitelloni is nothing if not a bona fide neorealist classic. He returned to the well of possibilities it offered, making in the process a movie that stands with the best of his countrymen Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini, then considerably more renowned figures on the world stage.

Back then, word travelled somewhat more slowly than it does today. The Venice Film Festival’s awards ceremony wasn’t streamed live online to viewers at any and every corner of the planet, for example. So, while I Vitelloni marked Fellini out as one of contemporary cinema’s most notable new directors, it took its time making the rounds internationally. Indeed, though its success attracted big name talents like Anthony Quinn to his next feature, 1954’s La Strada, it’d have to wait until after that film’s U.S. release in 1956 to make its own debut Stateside. By this time, Fellini’s reputation had only grown – his budgets were bigger, his casts were better-known, his style was evolving, expanding alongside the scale and scope of his productions. I Vitelloni thus stands as a rather unique title in the Fellini oeuvre, the first among a string of critical and commercial hits that remain today some of the most acclaimed titles of the era, yet perhaps the most ostensibly simple, stylistically reserved picture of his entire career.

Its plot is paper-thin: five young men drift through their sleepy hometown on the Adriatic coast, casually, wistfully taking stock of their situation, laughing, drinking, occasionally squabbling their way through a collective friendship that’s sure to become splintered before long. One, Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) is forced into marriage after his girlfriend, Sandra (Leonora Ruffo), falls pregnant, announcing the first rupture; family tragedy, professional ambition and wanderlust will later come to further rupture their five-strong union, yet by I Vitelloni’s bittersweet end, the bonds forged over years of mutual love and respect haven’t been pulled apart entirely. If a little rueful and melancholy, this is still an optimistic story of a beautiful friendship.

If Fellini never quite grew into viewing women as more than idealized figures, he certainly outgrew his perspective here, which suffers from its overwhelmingly masculine lens. I Vitelloni has five protagonists, all of them heterosexual men – its female characters aren’t afforded the same agency, interiority, idiosyncrasies. Their mistakes can’t be redeemed, their foibles aren’t minor eccentricities but grave concerns, their status is defined by the men in their life, the men on Fellini’s screen. As rich as he’s drawn them, as well as his actors have inhabited them, his women are commensurately shallow and simplistic creations. And yet Fellini is by no means a quintessentially masculine filmmaker. The rigidity of his views on gender clashes with the romanticism of his outlook and of his penchant for whimsy and stylistic flourish. It’s a clash that’s never fully resolved, thereby providing I Vitelloni with a curious complexity that some of his later, more overtly feminized films would lack, yet also stripping it of the pureness of style and tone that made them so remarkable.

Regardless, it’s quite pointless to criticize a movie for what it isn’t. One ought to celebrate it for what it is. I Vitelloni is so many fabulous things that its own foibles are but minor eccentricities, largely forgivable given the era and given Fellini’s inexperience. For a director on only his third feature, the signs of his brilliance as an artist aren’t just starting to show, they’re on full display. He’s as confident with his camera as he’d ever become, effortlessly discovering organic ways of crafting iconic imagery, constructing a milieu defined as much by the romanticism of its plot as by the realism of its setting.

This is also a subtly, surprisingly amusing movie. A now-famous run-in between our relatively privileged protags and a group of road labourers concludes with the terrific, politically astute exchange: “I’m a socialist!” “A socialist? You’re not even a man!” A distraught mother, frantically weeping at her daughter’s disappearance, ends an agitated exchange with her son-in-law by asking him, “What should I do? Start making lunch?” Italian mamas do have their priorities! And this might be the only movie in history to boast the following line in total earnestness during a party scene set at a local dancehall: “This isn’t the time to eat a ham sandwich.” Some may regard camp as the quality of utter self-awareness in the practice of high absurdity; surely the more satisfying brand of camp is the utterly unaware type, such as the purchase of a freshly made ham sandwich at a local club.

It’s these quaint comforts, the frequent reminders that Fellini’s real world is a real world of 70-odd years ago now, that makes I Vitelloni the movie it is today, which is likely quite different from the movie it was upon release. Then, it was at the vanguard of a new cinema, one which Fellini would build upon and deviate from as boldly as he adhered to its tropes and themes just this once. And it’s through I Vitelloni that his position within neorealism becomes clear – this is the movie that explains his participation in writing some of the movement’s defining titles, like Rome, Open City and Paisan for Rossellini and The Mill on the Po for Alberto Lattuada. Cinema was changing and so too was one of its leading lights for the next 30 years.

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