The young cartoonist Federico Fellini got his start in movies writing scripts for some of the great neorealist directors of Italy's postwar period, in films including Rome, Open City. But soon he'd be directing on his own, and in 1953's I Vitelloni, just his second solo feature, it's easy to see why. At age 33, the future maestro had already developed a marvelous ability to set a scene, tell a story, and convey ideas, emotions and atmosphere with a few well-chosen pictures.
The film's subject is a natural for a young filmmaker. It's a seriocomic, semi-autobiographical story about five shiftless young men living in a seaside town much like Rimini, where Fellini himself grew up. Fausto, Moraldo, Alberto, Leopoldo and Riccardo are all old enough to have the things they're perfectly content to do without: their own jobs, homes and families. Instead they live with their middle-class parents and wander about town, low-rent playboys led by the chief womanizer, 30-year-old Fausto (Franco Fabrizi).
Fausto is the first to fall from this state of graceless perpetual adolescence. The film's opening scene -- the town's annual beauty pageant, rendered by Fellini with precise comic pathos -- leads to the discovery that Moraldo's younger sister, pageant-winner Sandra, is pregnant. That makes Fausto a dad, and it's his struggle to come to terms with all that this implies, plus sensitive Moraldo's close witnessing of it, that forms the film's core.
Artfully constructed, I Vitelloni (roughly, "the layabouts") weaves in multiple storylines while managing to feel casually episodic. But it's Fellini's handling of individual scenes that's most memorable. Early on, when Fausto's father confronts him with Sandra's pregnancy, Fellini moves seamlessly from broad domestic comedy to dramatic turbulence to sportive laughter, all within a handful of splendidly framed shots. A carnival scene gives a vivid sense of the style that would come to be labeled "Felliniesque," while a chance early morning encounter between a partied-out Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) and a much younger though gainfully employed boy is simply and quietly moving. It all climaxes emotionally not so much with Fausto being brought to heel, but with a wondrous concluding sequence in which one character, leaving town by train, envisions his friends left behind, asleep in bed, caressed by slow, tender pans of the camera.
With his next film, La Strada, Fellini would move on to international acclaim, and his work would continue to get better (Nights of Cabiria) and certainly bigger (La Dolce Vita) and more baroque (8Â½). But I Vitelloni was his first box-office hit at home -- effectively launching his career -- and it's arguable that his ear for his subject matter never displayed more perfect pitch. In Italian, with subtitles.