Federico Fellini's "I Vitelloni" may have just turned 50, but its story of men who refuse to relinquish their adolescence is one of cinema's most enduring. It's tough to imagine Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" or Barry Levinson's "Diner" without Fellini's film. This was only the director's third movie, and in many ways it's one of his most formally and emotionally pure.
His touch is light but the effect breaks you up all the same. Fellini takes his usual autobiographical routes, having co-written the film with his years loafing through his hometown of Rimini in mind. In his later films, both his waking life and his unconscious one became his stock in trade. However, "I Vitelloni," which has been restored and re-subtitled in a delicious black-and-white print, precedes the artist's Technicolor psychosexual dream weaving. Though the camera framing is note-perfect and the visual poetry is firmly, if discreetly, in place, the picture showcases an early mastery of storytelling and character that came to be overshadowed by saturnalias and the phantasmagoric -- the "Felliniesque."
Largely episodic, "I Vitelloni" opens with a nighttime beauty pageant that ends in a thunderstorm. The winner is Sandra (Leonora Ruffo) and she has just passed out, sick with the news that she's pregnant. The baby belongs to Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), the town cad, who instantly runs home to try to escape for Milan. But his widowed father (the wonderful Jean Brochard) forces him to stay and wed the girl. Fellini takes us through the vicissitudes of that shaky marriage, while letting us into the lives of Fausto's buddies, including Riccardo (the director's brother Riccardo), a singer; Leopoldo (Leopoldo Triste), an aspiring poet; a hopeless, hapless momma's boy named Alberto (Alberto Sordi) and Sandra's serious-minded brother Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi).
The film's narrator tells us that Fausto is the driving force of this rat pack. He's the prototype for the skirtchaser Marcello Mastroianni would play for Fellini in "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2." Fausto most enjoys carousing and womanizing, and he's the one who, as a new father and husband, most needs to curb his selfishness. His refusal to do so unleashes a self-destructive streak that compromises his relationships.
Fausto's cheating, as it turns out, is a nasty compulsion. There he is at the movies with Sandra, playing footsie with the temptress (Arlette Sauvage) to his right. (He even excuses himself to chase her home.) More troubling is his insistence on coming on to his boss's wife (Lida Baarova), who's only sort of appalled.
Alberto is also in an uproar, but for different reasons. The film's most tortured figure, he suffers a meltdown in drag, lamenting being perpetually alone. (In a dress and makeup, he bears a strange resemblance to Giulietta Masina, who would appear in Fellini's next film, "La Strada.")
The taciturn Moraldo, meanwhile, is the group's lonely spiritual center, although his passivity and admiration of Fausto just seem naive. You want Moraldo to lay into his pal for cheating on his sister and sabotaging her life, but he seems to recognize his paralysis and his relationships with his buddies as a bad habit. Cast in many an Italian production as the pretty boy, Interlenghi here provides the picture its gravity.
Moraldo's strongest relationship is with the teenager he befriends one night on a bench. Fellini's intentions are innocent enough. There's nothing to suggest desire, but so much of Moraldo's personality is in the closet that it's not a reach to wonder if his sexuality is, too. It's possible the boy is just a representation of Moraldo's youth, the very thing he knows he must let go and, which, in the picture's last scene, he does.
It's a shot straight out of a Hollywood melodrama, but what it portends is spectacular. If we're to take Moraldo as a Fellini stand-in, then we know he's caught the last train out of realism.
("I Vitelloni": ****)
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.