Monday, January 17, 2011

Themes & Symbols Pt. III : I VITELLONI (1953)

Movie poster for Federico Fellini's 1953 film, I VITELLONI

The storyline for AMERICAN GRAFFITI was inspired by a movie that Lucas admired very much. A devotee of post-war European films, Lucas has said Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini's, I VITELLONI (1953) directly influenced him. "I’d always liked the idea of Fellini’s film, I Vitelloni, which is the same issue, about growing up, and taking responsibility, moving out of the house, and that whole trauma. It was one of the themes in my first film, THX-1138 and I wanted to expand on it." Lucas' second feature film is strikingly similar in its structure in both the beginning and end and in its general theme. The film, (originally titled "The Young and the Passionate" in the US), begins as the summer season is coming to a close and Fausto is planning to move away from the limited confines of his small hometown for someplace far away. He tries to persuade his reluctant buddy, Moraldo to leave with him. The film ends with the roles reversed. Fausto decides to stay in town to be close to his girlfriend (who is pregnant) while Moraldo, on the other hand, chooses to abandon his hometown for greener pastures. The theme of ambivalence about leaving the safe confines of one's hometown runs throughout the film.

The word vitelloni translates to "big veals" or "overgrown calves," a reference to the group's continuing dependence upon their parents even though they’re grown.
Although it has a loose structure and is strangely narrated, compared to Fellini’s later work such as "8 ½" and "La Dolce Vita," the story line is fairly comprehensible.
Fausto's father admonishes  his son's  immaturity.
The semi-autobiographical masterpiece follows the adventures of a group of five young adult “vitelloni,” or slackers living in a small coastal town.  The "vitelloni's" biggest ambitions are playing pool and finding their next sexual conquest.  All of them still live at home with their parents, but instead of working a job, going to school, or learning a trade, they choose to stay out all night, and generally just hang out. The friends are clinging hopelessly to their adolescents while they struggle to come to terms with adult responsibilities.   They may have dreams, but the only way for any of the guys to fulfill their dreams is to leave their hometown.   But none seem too motivated. They are desperate to get out yet terrified to leave.
The film  begins by introducing each character one by one as the camera pans around the group.  Filmmaker Martin Scorsese put this technique to good use many years later in  GOODFELLAS.  Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), described in voiceover narration as the "spiritual leader" of the group, although "skirt chaser" would be a more adequate description; Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) labels himself a playwright yet has never got around to having his work finished or produced; Alberto (Alberto Sordi), an immature "mama's boy," who lives off of his sister's financial support, yet expects her to honor him as the head of the family; Riccardo, (played by Fellini's real life brother, Riccardo), is a musician and the least memorable character whose only purpose in the film appears to be providing the gang with transportation via his car. And, finally, there's the complex Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the intellectual of the group, who is aware of the insular and limited nature of their lives, and the only one frustrated enough to do something about it.  He is the consciousness of the film


The feeling of wanting to reach one’s potential but being scared to pursue it is a theme that runs through both "Vitelloni" and "Graffiti."  Everyone has choices to make and with those choices comes uncertainty and doubt. There is a character in both films whom, although
On the set: Fellini (left) discusses the script with Jean Brochard (right)
fearful, confronts his fears and pursues his ambitions by the end of the story.  He is the sensitive intellectual - a dreamer of the bunch, and is pursuing a professional career as a writer. This character serves as an autobiographical surrogate for the director.  In Vitelloni the character is Moraldo and in Graffiti he is Curt.  Federico Fellini grew up in the small seaside town of Rimini.  In order to follow his bliss he had to abandon the safe comforts of his hometown and the companionship of his friends for the metropolis of Rome in Italy.  Similarly, George Lucas made the choice to leave his small hometown of Modesto CA in order to pursue his dreams as a filmmaker at the University of Southern California in Los Angles. 

                       The men are trapped in a claustrophobic world of family and                            relationships that leads to their inevitable stagnation.

Despite the many parallels between the two films there are some notable distinctions. For example, the supporting characters in each film are dissimilar and demonstrate opposing personalities. Whereas, "Graffiti," is filled with a group of likable friends, it becomes difficult to find affection for the freeloading drifters in "I Vitteloni."  The group are as pathetic as they are laughable.  Hot Rodder, John Milner seems like someone you'd want to hang out with, or emulate, but if you saw immature, Vitteloni character, Alberto coming you'd probably move to the other side of the road.

Another contrast is the stark black & white of Fellini's film with the saturated color of American Graffiti.  The two movies couldn't be more visually different.  In "Vitteloni," black and white works to emphasize the drab, dull isolated seaside town and the harsh realities of growing up where nothing is glorified.  On the other hand, the bright saturated primary colors in American Graffiti practically jump out at the viewer as flashing neon and reflecting car chrome help create a teenage fantasy.


Each director beautifully portrayed the pivotal juncture in their lives with poignancy, and humor which in turn marked another pivotal point in their career.  The popularity of the film allowed the director to make the film that would shoot them into international standing. Fellini's next feature was the classic, LA STRADA, while Lucas followed his second feature with STAR WARS.  Legendary filmmaker, Martin Scorsese has summarized the theme of I Vitelloni , by reflectively saying, "[The film] captures the bittersweet emotions of a moment that eventually comes for everyone.  The moment you can either grow up or stay a child forever."  This analysis could just as easily apply to American Graffiti.

   By the end of the film Moraldo, in the middle of the night,  finds the courage to leave his hometown in search of a better life.
As we close the third part of THEMES & SYMBOLS, I'll summarize the content by noting that George Lucas at 28 years old created a masterful cinematic work with American Graffiti.  From a loose, autobiographical perspective, he recreated and documented the car cruising culture of his teenage years.  Within the film, themes and motifs were utilized that were first evident in his student films at USC, his first feature, THX-1138 and later re-examined in Star Wars.  The fact that Lucas has been able to re-visit and explore similar themes in vastly different contexts is a testament to the consistency and quality of his work.

- FIN -


  • American film Institute. George Lucas Interview.  Excerpt on You Tube. Posted 10/30/2009. Retrieved 2/01/2014.
  • I Vitellnoi  DVD. (1953, 2005). Criterion.
  • My Voyage to Italy. Dir. Martin Scorsese. DVD. (2003). Dist. Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
  • Vitelloni, I - Film (Movie) Plot and Review - Publications.  Retrieved 12/26/2010. 
  • Wiegand, Christopher. (2003).  Frederico Fellini: the complete films.  Cologne, Germany. Taschen Books.

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