Ah, I can relax, now my winter of cinematic discontent is over; despite affording me the time to catch up on the various films jockeying for Oscar nominations (this year, I was only really taken with Big Fish
, though the best film I saw during this time span was Nicolas Philibert's wonderful documentary, Etre et avoir
; perhaps things will change when I see Monster
later this afternoon), Winter Break is a veritable dead zone when it comes to interesting films being released in Madison. No longer, as the 2004 Spring (yeah, right with -10 degree temperatures, which did keep me away from the documentary Hellhouse
which screened here on Thursday) Cinematheque is upon me. This semester's offerings seem much more interesting than last semester's relatively disappointing program; silent films dominate the mix, with retros devoted to late 20s Soviet cinema and silent-screen actress Norma Talmadge, as well as Jewish cinema and the films of Mexican director Fernando de Fuentes. The Cinematheque began last night with a packed screening (thank god, it kept us warm, as it was a balmy 10 degrees outside) of Fellini's newly restored 1953 breakthrough film, I Vitelloni
Now, Fellini, there's a director, despite a reputation and large body of work that presages itself, that I'm unfamiliar with, having only seen four, yes four, of his films in the last decade (and I only sheepishly count 8 1/2
, having seen it at least nine years ago on a crappy, pan -and-scan VHS release). Give me another decade, and I may cover the remainder of his major films. Actually, after seeing I Vitelloni
, I may take it upon myself to speed up the process. I Vitelloni
is a very interesting examination of five friends, all young, middle-class men and how the boredom, lack of direction, and limited horizons of their seaside, provincial town effects them.
With only one exception, the relatively omniscient narrator Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi, who struck me as looking vaguely like Gary Sinise), the characters, despite being in their late 20s, have been rendered infantile concerned almost exclusively with aimlessly wandering about town in an effort to find something interesting to do, whether it be drinking, food, partying, or women. The film doesn't have a plot in the strictest sense, instead it's a loose series of events which takes place over a year or so (give or take a few months). Many of the events center on the shotgun marriage between the vitelloni's caddish, "spiritual" leader (as the narrator Moraldo refers to him in the opening scene) Fausto, and a young beauty queen named Sandra, who also happens to be Moraldo's younger sister. Fausto sets the tone for the others, a rather dandyish screw-up (can a man fix his hair any more times in a movie?), who would rather be chasing women than providing for his young wife or new baby. He's so brazen about his appetites that he even pursues women in front of Moraldo (who at first deludes himself into believing Fausto's lies, but slowly becomes disillusioned and separates from him), or when his wife is in the next room. The others aren't much better: there is Alberto, who is always looking for the next drink, or trying to keep his sister away from her married lover (it also happens that Olga is the only one in their household who has a job); Riccardo, a local tenor (one of those guys who has enough talent to get him invited to all the local events, but not much else beyond that) who is slowly watching his girth increase; and Leopoldo, the group intellectual (he even pretentiously wears a beret), who, instead of spending a lot of time writing his truly awful plays, instead flirts with his neighbor's maid.
As I said before, the only exception is Moraldo. He's as initially directionless as the rest of them, but there is a difference. Whereas the rest of them generally act boorishly, or childishly, Moraldo is quiet, stoic, more observational (a trait made more salient by the fact that Moraldo acts as the film's narrator), more responsible (the next morning after Carnival, he forgoes a pretty young woman's company to guide a drunken, almost belligerent, Alberto back to his mother's apartment). The arc of his character, as he becomes disillusioned with his friends hijinks, alienates him from his friends (in the scene after the Carnival, a ranting Alberto claims "not to know" Moraldo). Moraldo, who has taken to wandering the streets alone at night, even befriends a young working-class boy named Guido who begins work at the train station at 3am; it's a strange relationship, as Moraldo seems more comfortable, happier, and open when he converses with an adolescent at least 10 years his junior (if not more). I think the definitive break comes after Fausto's most blatant indiscretion, which drives Sandra to disappear with the baby; Moraldo declines to travel with his friends to search for her, preferring to go it alone.
The events surrounding Sandra's disappearance serve to reinforce the motif of the main characters infantilism. While Moraldo prefers to search alone, and Fausto becomes more despondent at his family's disappearance, the rest of them, in a borrowed car, prove to be ineffectual searchers, apparently unable to keep from screwing around in the countryside (for example, throwing clumps at dirt at someone peeing behind a tree). The film actually takes a rather humorous approach at the far reaches of its infantilism motif. For one thing, as Alberto, Riccardo, and a sleeping Leopoldo drive aimlessly through the countryside, Alberto insults a road construction crew for no apparent reason other than they are working-class. When there car breaks down a short distance away, they get their comeuppance when the angry workers chase them down and beat them (a sleepy Leopoldo protests "I'm a Socialist!"). And despite a couple scenes of misdirection (pointing towards a more tragic conclusion to what had been until that point a relatively light film), Fausto's story also ends humorously, as with the help of his ex-boss, he finds his wife and baby at his own father's house. Fausto's enraged father ushers everyone out of the room, proceeds to take his belt off, and whips Fausto like a child, must to the bemusement of his ex-boss and little sister. Saved from further beating and embarrassment by the intercession of his wife, a chastened Fausto makes up with Sandra (who tells him she will beat him if he ever steps out of line), at which point, Moraldo, as the narrator, pronounces their story over.
But it is not over for Moraldo. For reasons he is unable to articulate, Moraldo decides to leave, something he and his friends have always talked about, but never done, in secret, without a word to friends and family; the only person who wishes him fairwell is his friend Guido, who just happens to be working at the train station that morning. There are a series of shots which conclude the film, as Moraldo's train pulls away from the station, Fellini cuts to the bedroom of each vitelloni, the camera, moving in the same screen direction as the train, pulls away from each of the sleeping (like babies), unaware friends. It's clear that they will never leave town (leaving, as represented by the character of Olga, Alberto's sister, and the implied actions of Sandra, is regarded by the characters as permament, and thus frightening); Moraldo's leaving being a radical break, the only major action taken by the characters under their own volition. Guido watches the train pull away, and then turns, walking back to the station, playfully balancing on the track.