I am always surprised to discover how few of Federico Fellini’s professed American admirers have ever seen I Vitelloni (1953), which Criterion has just released in a strikingly chiaroscuro restored new print. As it happens, I consider I Vitelloni to be his funniest and most emotionally coherent cinematic achievement. Fellini (1920-1993) had already directed one and a half films- Variety Lights (1950), co-directed with the grossly underrated Alberto Lattuada, and The White Sheik (1952), both humorous showbiz farces-before I Vitelloni took the 1953 Venice Film Festival by storm, winning a Golden Lion in the process. In America, however, it followed the much more lachrymal La Strada (1954) into art-house theaters and seemed a little cold and complex by comparison, lacking as it did the waif-like wistfulness exuded by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina.
Nonetheless, I Vitelloni (translated as “the big young calves”) is a marvel of compact screenwriting and film editing. The film relates several interlocking stories without ever seeming episodic or disjointed, and although it was made more than 50 years ago, its seriocomic saga of five overgrown Italian mama’s boys seems timeless.
These five figures of aimless adulthood, adrift in a seaside resort out of season, enabled Fellini to produce such memorably lyrical images of group loneliness on the beach that the film invited critical comparisons with T.S Eliot’s “lonely boys” from “The Wasteland.” The sixth member of the Vitelloni serves as an almost entirely unseen narrator. The two most closely observed members of the group are Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), their incorrigibly lecherous leader and a world-class adulterer, and Moraldo (Fronco Interlenghi), the restlessly sensitive dreamer whose sister, Sandra, (Leonora Ruffo), becomes Fausto’s unhappy wife, much to Moraldo’s disgust-leading him to become the only one of the group to leave town for Rome (though all the Vitelloni have talked about it fruitlessly). There’s also Alberto (Alberto Sordi), the comedian of the group, supported by his sister Olga (Claude Farell), who finally abandons him and their mother to run off with her married boss. Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste), the intellectual of the group, is a failed playwright who finds himself an unwilling pawn in a distastefully sordid careerist adventure. Fellini’s own brother, Riccardo, is cast in the comparatively minor role of Riccardo, a preening would-be opera singer.
The only chastening figures for the Vitelloni are several short-tempered patriarchal characters who do not hesitate to apply physical force to their errant offspring. There’s no shortage of the Felliniesque in I Vitelloni , particularly in the storm-tossed chaos of an end-of-summer nightclub celebration at the beginning of the film, and a wild Easter Carnival costume dance near the middle. Both crazily congested spectacles attest to Fellini’s graphic genius from his days as a newspaper cartoonist.
[ I Vitelloni (1953), Unrated, 103 min., $29.95.]
U Got the Look
Morris E. Day is a hero to his valet. The villain of Prince’s 1984 vehicle Purple Rain , Mr. Day more or less plays himself as front man of the Time. And wherever Mr. Day goes-hitting the stage, for instance, in a jacket with tiger-print lapels-there too goes his official valet, Jerome Benton, a step in front or behind, as needed, to keep Mr. Day’s world immaculate.
When Mr. Day wants to check his hair in the middle of “Jungle Love,” here comes Jerome, dancing from the wings (in step, always in step) with a mirror. When Mr. Day wants to pitch some woo at a lady (“I have . . . a brass . . . waterbed”), there goes Jerome, keeping any other ladies at bay.
The quasi-biographical musician-movie genre is not an ambitious one. The star, under some pseudonym, pretends to be someone who is not yet a star, walking through enough plot to allow him to perform a certain number of songs. The fans, who are the whole reason the movie got made, get to hear the songs. Why go above and beyond?
Maybe because that’s where the fun is. Like Andy Warhol in Blank Generation , who provides a daffy interlude from the artistic suffering of rock star Richard (“Billy”) Hell, Mr. Day and Mr. Benton offer a draft of fresh air amid the musical and familial claustrophobias of “The Kid,” otherwise known as Prince.
And unlike Mr. Warhol, the duo doesn’t parcel it out at Brando-in-the-jungle rates. Here’s Jerome again, pausing to condescendingly straighten the Kid’s jacket, as the Time yields the stage to the Revolution. There’s the pair killing a few minutes with a for-the-hell-of-it “Who’s on First?” routine, built around Mr. Benton’s suggestion that their secret signal should be the word “what.” “The password is what?” Mr. Day demands, baffled but suave.
It’s not about stealing scenes from the star. The star can-and does-steal the scenes from himself: flaring his dark-rimmed eyes, roaring moodily off on his purple Honda motorcycle. Prince gets to play his entire album in the movie, while the Time gets about two songs. You haven’t forgotten “The Bird,” have you? “Whawk!” Mr. Day whoops. “Hallelujah!”
Hallelujah! As long as the two are around (and remember, Prince chose to have them there), Purple Rain feels like something more than a prison built on the island of Prince’s vanity. No wonder Mr. Benton gazes on Mr. Day with such undisguised admiration: That’s how you do it! The job is to make the main man look his best.
[ Purple Rain (1984), R, 111 min., $26.99.]
Get Your Freaks On
Set mostly in the small encampment outside of a big-top circus, Tod Browning’s Freaks is an attempt to bring out the human qualities of sideshow attractions … that is, before they turn into homicidal maniacs. Mwah-ha-ha-ha!
When the movie was released in 1932, MGM held a public preview. Big mistake. One woman fled the theater screaming. The studio responded by excising 26 minutes-footage still missing in action-and even this bowdlerized version was banned for 30 years in Great Britain.
Of course, it’s now considered a cult classic, if not a masterpiece-a disturbing exercise in Hollywood voyeurism. Mr. Browning was the cinematic visionary behind many collaborations with Lon Chaney Sr., “the Man of a Thousand Faces,” not to mention the 1931 classic Dracula with Bela Lugosi. One might call him the Godfather of Horror.
In Freaks , the director walked a tricky high wire between exploitation and compassion, most memorably when he sends a limbless Prince Randian (a.k.a. the Living Torso) wriggling through the mud with a knife clutched in his teeth, menacing but impotent-a tragicomic image that suggests the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail , assuring King Arthur that “it’s just a flesh wound.”
The Torso is a part of a gang of sideshow attractions that has turned on one of their “normal” carnies, an Amazonian trapeze artist named Cleopatra. She married a dwarf named Hans for his money, then tried to poison him so she could be with her real beau, the carnival’s strongman, Hercules. When the freaks find out, they hunt her down and disfigure her. (Something to keep in mind before “slumming” at Coney Island this summer, kids!)
The plot is a prototypical example of the powerless seeking their revenge in some gruesome, nightmarish, altogether immoral form. It’s vigilante justice for the neglected and ridiculed. Think of Carrie , Friday the 13th , Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video or any Stephen King movie in which a Native American burial ground is desecrated.
Mr. Browning takes care to portray these sideshow attractions in a positive, “normal” light, going about their business outside the ring just like everyday Joes and Janes-which makes their eventual murderousness all the more grotesque. Indeed, the film is almost cruel.
But you’ll enjoy the lengthy background documentary, with commentary from carnival-experts-cum-historians that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “talking head.” Eek!
[ Freaks (1932), Unrated, 64 min., $19.97.]