Fellini’s lovely ‘Vitelloni’ lives la lazy vita

Kyle Smith

I Vitelloni,” Federico Fellini’s 1953 arthouse gem, was originally translated into English as “The Young and the Passionate.” Perhaps this reflects a pre-“Peyton Place” America looking for chewy soap opera material, for “I Vitelloni” actually translates to “the calves,” and the men at the center of the film are nothing but lazy cows grazing the same old pasture. They’re hardly young — at least in their mid-20s — and the only passion they have is for idleness.

Their listlessness is typical of Fellini, who died a little over 10 years ago. Kino International is rereleasing “I Vitelloni” in a restored 35mm print that will be playing for one week at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, located at 3733 N. Southport Ave., starting tomorrow.

Like many of Fellini’s films, there isn’t much of a plot to “I Vitelloni.” Five upper- middle-class Italian males do nothing. They occasionally engage in short-term activities like working, playing pool or having sex, but they spend most of the movie mooching off their family, friends, lovers and community. Quite simply, they refuse to grow up or be anything besides inactive. They’re mid-century slackers, predecessors to Robert De Niro’s and Harvey Keitel’s do-nothing New Yorkers in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and the typical 1990s independent films centered on listless, privileged youth.

“I Vitelloni” was the last full-length feature Fellini directed before his international hit “La Strada” solidified his name. It’s interesting to watch the elements of Fellini’s films that would eventually be categorized as “Felliniesque” arrive like stops along a railroad in “I Vitelloni.” We get the sexually demanding central character, the aptly named Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), who marries the lovely Sandra (Leonora Ruffo) and is asked after the wedding ceremony, “Did it hurt?”

Fausto cheats and womanizes, deeply hurting Sandra, but like Fellini’s sympathetic women would do in later films like “8 1/2,” she always regresses.

The tragic figure at the heart of Fellini’s films is inevitably a man who realizes he is in love, but always far too late. “La Strada” and “La Dolce Vita” both end on such sour notes, but “I Vitelloni” is notably more optimistic. At the end of the film, after being wronged again, Sandra warns Fausto that if he mistreats her once more, she’ll “give him a real beating.” Fausto replies, “You’re wonderful” and kisses her.

Felliniesque elements parade elsewhere in “I Vitelloni.” We see the vastness of the sea as it nestles itself alongside a beach. We see the commercialization of Catholicism when some of the men attempt to sell a religious statue to a priest who has inexplicably climbed up into a tree. We see the much-ballyhooed arrival of a famous actress, predicting “La Dolce Vita,” Fellini’s most famous film. We see the insanity and debauchery of the circus, recently honored in Tim Burton’s “Big Fish.” Few directors have staked their unmistakable claim over such vast cinematic symbols, but “I Vitelloni” reminds one of Fellini’s control and creativity.

Rereleases have become quite popular lately, serving as a launchpad for loaded DVD editions of classic films. And if anything, seeing films like “I Vitelloni” on pristine prints in majestic movie houses like the Music Box is an easy way to travel back in time to a pre-multiplex, pre-computer effects world, where audiences were excited about quality films, not opening-weekend receipts.

“I Vitelloni”: A