On Silver screen: Fellini's `Vitelloni'

Masterpiece depicts world of boyish men

FilmColumn

January 16, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

When an interviewer pressed Federico Fellini to explain the mysterious complexities of his 1953 masterpiece I Vitelloni (a restored print premieres today at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring), the maestro said, simply, "It's the story of men who haven't grown up, and the infantile state is ambiguous. There can be no heroic posturings, no virile poses."

I Vitelloni portrays small-town loafers - today they might be called "slackers" - who dream of Rome or Milan while pursuing aimless flirtations and frivolities. The autobiographical hero is the clear-eyed Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the only one to break away. But the ringleader is Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), the showoff lady-killer. At the beginning, Fausto is forced to marry Moraldo's sweet, pretty sister (Eleanora Ruffo), who, right after being named Miss Siren, faints from what turns out to be pregnancy.

Moraldo's perception of Fausto's destructive, hypocritical behavior provides the major impetus for the director's surrogate to leave town. Moraldo also sees the pathos of the self-styled playwright, Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste), who waits in vain for inspiration; and he sees through the charged, androgynous jesting of Alberto (the daringly original young Alberto Sordi), who gets an awful jolt of recognition from a huge fake clown's head at carnival time.

I Vitelloni defines the gray area between adolescence and adulthood, when the Fates might appear in the form of pickups. The casual yet complicated narrative is a model of anecdotal storytelling. Nino Rota's music tumbles down the streets like the Adriatic winds, helping Fellini establish his distinctive atmosphere of seedy emotionality. Even when his characters indulge in deception and downright thievery, Fellini imbues them with comical energy and poignancy. Shot in supple black and white, the movie is a triumph of observation and remembrance; it gives literal meaning to the concept of viewing people in a "sympathetic light."

Pauline Kael said that I Vitelloni "planted the autobiographical hero on the screen," paving the way for films as different as American Graffiti and Mean Streets. But I Vitelloni also proved that filmmakers could take a close, insular group of people at a volatile time of life and make their stewed emotions as compelling as the physical jeopardy in a war movie. Mel Brooks told me decades ago that when Barry Levinson started regaling him with Baltimore stories, Brooks encouraged him to turn them into a screenplay because he could tell Levinson would make a movie comparable to I Vitelloni. And Levinson did: Diner.

Italian director Gabriele Muccino's The Last Kiss, one of my 10 best from 2002, is virtually a Vitelloni update; there's no more entertaining way to trace a thread of artistic influence than to see Fellini's film at the AFI Silver and then rent or buy Muccino's film on its recently released DVD. The Last Kiss elegantly traces the stumbling steps of some buddies nearing 30. They may live in Rome, but they're as befuddled as the provincials in Fellini's film. Under Muccino's dynamic, insightful direction, they occupy individual whirlpools that tumble into each other and pull us into a vortex of humor and drama.

For I Vitelloni, check www.AFI.com/Silver for updates; call 301-495-6720 for general information or 301-495-6700 for pre-recorded program information. Tickets: $8.50 for general admission, $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors.

The Last Kiss is a Buena Vista Home Video release; the DVD lists for $29.99.

The nature of guilt

Jean-Pierre Melville's epic heist film Le Cercle Rouge (1970), premiering tomorrow at the Charles, carries a Buddhist epigram basically stating that people who are meant to meet will do so "in the red circle" no matter what crazy routes they take to it. To illustrate his own aphorism (we are told), Buddha took a piece of red chalk and drew a circle. In the movie proper, Alain Delon's elegant thief Corey is the only one we see wielding red chalk and tracing a circle - on the tip of his cue at a billiard hall.

The men in this film make their own fate. True, the red circle refers to their common, bloody destiny. But it also conjures a bullet through the heart. Corey is the catalyst: just out of jail, his biggest asset is a plan to strip clean a jewelry shop on the Place Vendome.

He lands an impromptu partner when Gian-Maria Volonte's wild-eyed mystery-man Vogel escapes arrest and hides in the trunk of Corey's car. Vogel knows just the marksman and getaway artist for the job, an alcoholic ex-policeman named Jansen (Yves Montand).

Meanwhile, the police captain Vogel gave the slip to, Mattei (Andre Bourvil), moves to hunt down his ex-prisoner. Mattei, too, is at a crossroads: the head of Internal Affairs calls Mattei on the carpet and derides him for not believing that all men are guilty - "they're born innocent, but it doesn't last."

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