An Ageless Portrayal of Time Lost, ‘I Vitelloni’ (1953) Captures Ennui That Feels All Too Familiar

As flowers begin to weep their petals away in preparation for autumn, a harsh downpour interrupts a beauty pageant taking place in an Italian provincial seaside town. Amid the tumult, pageant winner Sandra (Leonora Ruffo) suddenly faints, with rumours circling that she’s expecting a baby with attending womaniser Fausto (Franco Fabrizi). After pressure from his father, Fausto agrees to a shotgun wedding, but despite being happy at the time, old habits die hard. When returning from their honeymoon, Fausto engages in his friends’ usual hijinks as well as compulsively continues to pursue other women — sometimes even in his wife’s presence.

A grounded film that emphasises the intimate realities of ordinary life, I Vitelloni features characters that are  pathetic, heroic, frustrating, repellent and relatable all at once. Besides the group’s leader Fausto, the friends consist of aspiring playwright Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste), daydreaming moralist and mother’s boy Alberto (Alberto Sordi), the self-seeking singer Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini) who stares at his growing gut every night, and finally, Sandra’s brother Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the youngest in the group.

Still from I Vitelloni showing four of the five friends sitting outside of a café. One of them is reading a newspaper, one of them has his eyes closed as if he's sunbathing and the other two look deep in thought. They are together but feel separated.
Image courtesy of Cité Films

Living off those around them — mothers, sisters, aunts, and fathers — the five men dream of different lives but stay drifting and clinging to their long-lost adolescence. Continuously putting off the moment when they are forced to face up to the responsibilities that come with adulthood, they instead strut down streets as if they own them and spend their days moving through cafés, pool halls and desolate beaches. These men desperately talk about leaving and various career aspirations, yet nothing comes to fruition. They vividly dream of potential trips around the world that will never happen, which becomes clear as soon as they start fantasising about them. They talk a lot, but talking is all they do. These men are charming and well-dressed, but the more we learn about them, the emptier their lives appear to be. Alberto recognises as much when, drunk and in drag after the town’s yearly party, he confides in Moraldo. “You’re nobody,” he says. “Everybody here is nobody.”

Throughout the film, the only character who seriously questions the life he leads is Moraldo. Every night whilst pondering his own existence he walks the empty streets, toying with the question of leaving, a yearning that grows stronger each time he hears or sees a train. Contrary to his friends, there’s a strong indication that Moraldo wants to evolve in life and move beyond antics he doesn’t feel particularly good about. However, too loyal for anyone’s good, he doesn’t actively do anything to break out of his habits until the end. 

Recognised as a pivotal work in the director’s artistic evolution, I Vitelloni features early explorations of themes that would later dominate Federico Fellini’s filmography, including the arrested development of men, marriage and infidelity, and provincial town versus the city. Moody yet naively hopeful, Fellini captures the sorrow of fast-fading youth and small-town mentality in a way that feels both comforting and jarring to any viewer who might recognise themselves in it. 

Still showing Fausto at work. His head is down in his hand, as if he had just done something he shouldn't have done and now worry about the consequences. He is surrounded by various historical sculptures and artefacts.
Image courtesy of Cité Films

Even though these men — all caught between the optimism of childhood’s bliss and the dawning realisation of adulthood’s bleak responsibilities — struggle with morality, it’s mostly the actions Fausto carries out that speak the loudest. Instead of being brave enough to tell the truth after losing his new job due to going after his employer’s wife, he twists facts to yet again prove to viewers what kind of a person he is. He is a particular kind of coward, the kind that uses grand words, yet never backs them up with actions — something worn-out Moraldo addresses towards the end.

There’s a touching ambivalence in how Fellini portrays his protagonists, how he conveys their fruitless aspirations and struggles with a kind of compassion only someone who has moved in close alignment with similar emotions can achieve. The film presents these characters as they are without judgement, and even within the most atrocious of characters are some nuances to be discovered. Notably though, these nuances are not in any way used to excuse their behaviour, but rather to emphasise the complexity of people.

These characters might seem clueless, but maybe they are much more aware — painfully so — about their upcoming fates than they first lead on. The friends are put in continuous contrast to the older generation, who have all assumed their responsibilities of family life whilst still struggling. These people, namely their parents, have sacrificed so much of themselves, yet still produced equally ignoble results in life. They are unhappy and lonely and break down in either tears of distress or bursts of violence when facing setbacks. 

Showing four of the five friends in profile, all but Moraldo standing up (he is sitting down on the dock) whilst looking out towards the open sea. They all look deep in thought, not speaking to each other. It's a windy day, as one of them is holding onto their hat.
Image courtesy of Cité Films

Therefore, maybe it isn’t too surprising that their offspring behave the way they do. Their parents are living examples of how lives aligned with tradition don’t give flourishing results, and instead of settling for dead-end jobs or unemployment, the young men selfishly give into the temptations and pleasures of life that their parents have long abandoned. 

I Vitelloni is about as contemporary as a film released almost 70 years ago can be. As these men wander around the coastal town, trying to find some fulfilment amid societal changes in 1950s Italy, I Vitelloni presents itself as equally relevant today. Regardless of age, the bleak present and uncertain future can fill anyone with overwhelming amounts of despair. It’s easy to feel defeated, especially amidst the cost of living crisis, the consequences of which remind people how much harder it’ll be to make a decent living or even survive, both today and tomorrow.

In the end, Moraldo is the only one who leaves the town’s foreclosed opportunities in search of something else, because even if it doesn’t work out — even if it fails miserably — it offers at least a possibility of something better. An achingly moving ending, Moraldo looks back towards the town he escapes from, as sweeping shots of the remaining friends sleeping and dreaming their lives away are intertwined. 

Guido (Guido Martufi), the boy working at the railway station whom Moraldo meets during one of his nightly walks and continues to run into, is the only one watching him leave. Whilst the images of the drifting friends that remain move on their own, I Vitelloni ends on another yet equally potent image. Fellini’s film concludes with the image of Guido walking back to the monotonous town Moraldo barely escaped from, balancing on the railway tracks in a childlike manner. 

Still showing Guido from behind watching Moraldo depart from the seaside town. Down the railway tracks, Moraldo's train is visible with its smoke. Only Guido is there watching him leave.
Image courtesy of Cité Films

Is Guido only expressing a kind of carefreeness found within childish naivety and bliss, completely unaware of what awaits in the town as he grows older? Unlikely. When Guido and Moraldo meet for the first time, it’s noticeable that Moraldo experiences a rather painful realisation, namely that this young boy has taken on more responsibility than his whole friend group combined. Yet, despite all of that, he is content and continuously tries to make the best of every situation. At one point, Moraldo even tries on the boy’s railway hat, as if playing adult dress up, to see how it feels. A contrast to Moraldo too evident to ignore, Guido is a vital element in his being forced to come to terms with the lifelessness of his existence and how it isn’t sustainable if he ever wants to evolve. 

The kind of film where the sadness settles after the joke, I Vitelloni poignantly captures a specific kind of melancholic aimlessness that exists within sleepy smalltown stagnation, especially amongst people who often talk about leaving yet rarely ever manage to do so. An inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, I Vitelloni is a poetic rendition of lost youth and time lost, capturing characters stuck in limbo with unfulfilling existences because of it. For those who remain, the prospects for the future look grim, yet the film emphasises that it might not be easier for the ones leaving either, as the bittersweet ending indicates that some people will simply be happier than others — regardless of their circumstances.