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I vitelloni (Aug. 26, 1953)

30th Academy Awards Retrospective

I vitelloni, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

I vitelloni, Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film about a group of ne’er-do-well young men living in a small seaside town, was the only film nominated at the 30th Academy Awards that had originally been released several years earlier. I’m not sure why it was nominated, exactly, since it premiered in 1953, was released in the United States in 1956, and Fellini’s then current film, Nights of Cabiria (1957), was also nominated (and won) the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Fellini was definitely having a “moment” at this point. His film La Strada (1954) had won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film the year before at the 29th Academy Awards.

It’s easy to see why Fellini was hot shit in the mid-1950s. La Strada is a beautiful grand tragedy, and I vitelloni is equally beautiful while being much more fun and light-hearted.

The group of five protagonists are, like the protagonist of Fight Club, “30-year-old boys.” They have vague dreams and talk about leaving their small town but never do. They drink, harass women, and avoid responsibility. One of them sings opera, one of them writes plays, and one of them is forced to work and doesn’t exactly excel at it. Most of them experiment with growing facial hair like college students. The film spends more time with certain of them than others, like Fausto (played by Franco Fabrizi), the unofficial leader of the group who marries the girl he got pregnant but constantly tries to seduce other women, several times crossing the line into sexual assault.

The bad sides of these men are constantly on display, which is frustrating, but it’s tempered by how funny their irresponsible idiocy often is. Fellini perfectly captures the rhythms of a seaside town where it’s cold half the year and things only happen a couple of times every year when there’s a festival. These grand bacchanals end in still-drunk hangovers the next morning as the sun rises. The rest of the time the main characters prowl the streets, fight with their parents, and get into trouble entirely of their own making.

I had insomnia and watched this between 3 and 5 in the morning. I put it on because I thought it might help me drift off, but instead it drew me into its world and kept me awake. There’s no manufactured tension or hidden secrets waiting to be revealed. I vitelloni is involving in the best possible way. It presents a completely real world populated with completely real characters, all with an overwhelming aura of melancholy.

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