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I Vitelloni / Die Müssiggänger

A small Italian seaside town. It‘s the annual beauty pageant which is a big deal, so they’ve invited an actress down from Rome to join the judging panel. The panel votes 4 votes from 5 to award the title to Sandra. As they’re making their announcement, Sandra’s boyfriend Fausto is offering a woman her shoe back if she’ll give him a kiss. Nowadays we’d call it sexual harassment, but times were laxer then.

Sandra let’s slip that she’s pregnant, and Fausto plans to take the next train to Milan. But their families are having none of it, and the wedding is duly announced. Fausto and Sandra are to stay with her parents until he can find a way of looking after her and the baby. As a step on the way, his father-in-law approaches a friend who sells religious artefacts to give Fausto a job.

Married life doesn’t seem to change Fausto’s behaviour. He takes Sandra to the pictures (she’s paying of course) and spends the time playing footsie with the woman sat next to him, following her home when she leaves abruptly. He propositions his boss’s wife on their wedding anniversary, getting himself sacked. He goes to the local café and picks up a woman.

I Vitelloni is best translated as bucks or foals – wild young animals which have not yet been trained and are neither able nor willing to take responsibility for their actions. Fausto has a group of friends, all male, all clad in suits and hair gel, all living with their families, and none able to hold down a job, although Fausto is 30 and the rest of a similar age. They call themselves “the singer”, “the writer” and so on, but spend most of their time hanging around and leering at women.

The film calls itself a satire – which it is of sorts. It certainly makes no attempt to heroize its protagonists, but it does hold them in some sort of awe. Compare and contrast with Jacques Brel’s “Les Bourgeois” (loosely translated by Tom Robinson as “Yuppie Scum”) which is about a similar set of entitled middle-class idlers, but with far less reverence.

I must admit that I am coming late to director Federico Fellini, but am taking the advantage of seeing a series of films being shown on the 100th anniversary of his birth. And I’m reacting in two ways to all of the films so far. Firstly, they look fantastic and carry a stylish swagger. But also, they are very much of their time.

We see this, for example, in the treatment of the female characters. Notwithstanding the casual infidelities, Fausto is continually telling Sandra what she can and can’t eat. One of his mates is scandalized by his sister running off with a married man. Yet the sister is the exception. Most of the women just keep returning to degradation, because there is nowhere else to go.

The second way in which this is a specifically 1950s film is the choice of subject. Firstly, the fact that these 30 year old men have just not grown up. At one stage, Fausto’s father beats him with a belt, and he just takes it, despite being twice his father’s size. For all the apparent dissolute living and disrespect of authority, the characters are in thrall to their family.

And then there is the question of class. Fausto and his mates may be usually unemployed but they are certainly not poor. At one stage, a car full of them pass a group of road workers, and shout out abuse at people who they clearly believe are beneath them. There follows a “comic scene” in which their car breaks down and the workers run after them, but we are encouraged to take their side.

As said, I didn’t have much contact with Fellini when I was growing up. Instead, the old films they showed at Bradford Playhouse were often those starring Tom Courtenay, like Billy Liar or Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. These were made almost exactly one decade after I Vitelloni, but the difference in subject matter was sparkling clear. I Vitelloni shows people from another dimension, but the films I saw were about the aspirant working-class. They didn’t entirely dress or behave like we did but they were clearly people like Uz.

For this reason, I was impressed by this film, but I couldn’t feel lovingly about it. It is a historical artefact, a time capsule from a different age. This capsule is well preserved and looks magnificent, but it is something to look at from afar and not engage with too closely. And, despite all the reviews that I’ve read about all the jokes, it really isn’t very funny.

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