7 Feb


I Vitelloni is a movie about life in a small Italian town in the early to mid 50s based on Rimini, the place from which its director Federico Fellini came to Rome. We start with the town’s prettiest girl competing in a beauty pageant. It’s a media event. the sophistos from Rome are scouting for modelling talent. She wins but, far from delight, she literally falls to despair.

In the audience, a handsome young man looks on and knows that he is the reason. She’s pregnant, you see. This is all told with body language, not dialogue. The contest only serves to enhance her pain, add to the trouble she’s been trying to face. Winning makes it worse, now she knows will never go… anywhere.

She’ll never be a model, a star, a face. Never be a part of the semi-legendary Rome of the late 50s and 60s. She’ll never hang with the glamorous hollow people living the sweet life of parties in castles and dawns on the beach. She’s to stay here and live the life of her countless maternal ancestors. The beauty pageant tells her she could’ve had that stuff. She could’ve gotten out and who knows how far up. But now she never will.

The superman, so Nietzsche thought, would be one who was entirely a product of reason and will. A self-made creature. He didn’t consider the possibility, suggested by a trend evident in genetic history, that this creature would be female.

But that was the way of it. For centuries the deal allowed a few men freedom and women almost none. They were tied to their bodies. They were the givers of life and could never be free. Those women who’ve made it into the minor annals of history because they accomplished something other than motherhood and marriage are exceptions. Many girls dreamed of being exceptions or at least marrying a man better than the ones they saw about them.

So the beauty queen wins and faints. The boy, seeing this, understands right away. What does he feel when he sees this? What does he do? He tries to run away. He makes to flee the town but his father catches him, beats the shit out of him and makes him marry her. The community has an understanding about the consequences of such matters. There are stern penalties for being an unwed mother so, if there are people who care, there is harsh treatment for any man who absconds his responsibilities to her. Indeed, entire families can lose the respect and companionship of a town because of things like this.

But Fellini did get out. Out of the small coastal town of Rimini. All the way to Rome and to Hollywood where he received many a Best Foreign Film Oscar. A few years after I Vitelloni, he made La Dolce Vita, (The Sweet Life). At the centre of this endless parade of a movie stands our existential hero Marcello, a showbiz/gossip journalist with aspirations to being a serious writer. His life is packed with movie stars and models and the flotsam of a fading aristocracy. He cheats on his wife with lovers who cheat on him. His father comes to town but doesn’t chastise him for it. He joins in, eagerly conforming to the milieu’s ethos of perpetual adolescence.

This is the life that our small town beauty in Rimini has missed out on. The sparkling possibilities of contraception and liberalized marriage laws, the choices that democracy and capitalism make available. She stands on the brink of all that but her body bids her stay in the Middle Ages. She has missed out on the Freedom. And what do we make of it? La Dolce Vita answers this by showing life as an endless party for which we trade merely our integrity and even our soul without missing either.

Marcello aspires to be a serious writer and in this he has the support of an enlightened and successful intellectual. But then, right out of the clear blue sky, this Enlightenment Mentor goes and slaughters his children then himself. This type event has the banal familiarity of small articles printed on page 9 of the newspapers every so often. And in the movie this is what it turns out to be – infotainment. It is Marcello’s photographer that gave a name to a nefarious species of professional voyeurs. La Dolce Vita was released in 1960, I Vitelloni – 1953. How far Fellini saw in only a few short years. What we were losing; where we were headed.

The man who somehow has the keys to the meaning of life and hence to Marcello’s own personal journey thru it, self-annihilates. This destroys Marcello. At the end of the film we find him in the early morning light of yet another vulgar party telling actors how much they have to pay if they want hyperbolous praise of their talents in print. Is it a joke? We don’t know and neither does he. He’s finished and finishes kneeling in the sand of a beach. A beautiful young girl calls to him. An innocent from a small town much like our I Vitelloni beauty queen only a bit younger.

He can’t hear her.


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