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48 Hour Film Project
48 EcoFilm Challenge
Sharmill Films

I Vitelloni Fellini – For What it’s worth

I watched I Vitelloni (1953) again recently and, although I’ve seen Fellini’s early masterpiece many times, I always discover new delights. There are also favourite scenes which never disappoint, such as the sequence where the five friends stand at the end of a rickety jetty, gazing out to sea. It is a bleak, winter’s day and they’re wrapped up in their scarves and long overcoats to protect them from the chilly sea air. It’s a delightfully glum and extremely evocative scene during which Riccardo, played by the director’s brother, looks down into the icy water and asks the others, “If someone offered you 10,000, to jump in, would you do it?” Without waiting for an answer, he adds mournfully, “I would.”

I found myself chuckling quietly. Who was this imaginary person who would offer 10,000 to a young layabout to jump into an icy sea? Why would this person do such a thing? And how much do Riccardo’s two words really say about the hopelessness of the lives of these no longer young friends? The scene made me recall a similar moment some years ago in my own life when I was watching a Sydney Swans AFL football match with my own version of Fellini’s young layabouts.

The beautiful young wife of the only one of us who was married used to enjoy coming along. She wasn’t terribly interested in the football itself, so would devise little games to keep herself entertained while we yelled abuse at umpires, opposition players and often, most angrily, at our own bungling players. During a particularly gripping period of play she might ask, “How big do you think the crowd is?” We’d briefly take our eyes off the game, cast a quick look around the ground and make our prediction. At three quarter time, the scoreboard would list the crowd figures and my friend’s wife would cheerfully announce the winner.

One day she asked casually, “How much would they have to pay you to run naked across the ground?” My friend’s wife was stunned when I said that no amount of money could induce me to do so. “What? Not even five hundred thousand dollars?” I shook my head. “How about a million?” Nope. She was dumbstruck. This prompted discussion about whether my refusal was due to modesty or perhaps I was simply vain. Turned out my friend’s wife would run naked across the ground for “Ten thousand dollars. Maybe five.” At the time, she was a beautiful model (and is still very attractive), while I was a little pudgy though that had no bearing on my refusal.

One of the things I love about story telling is the way a character can be made to do almost anything if the right motivation is provided. In reality, the fact that I was modest – or vain – was enough to prevent me from running naked across a crowded football field. But what if I had a friend with an ailing child who needed an urgent, extremely expensive operation and I was offered such an easy way of earning the money to make this happen? Now if I refuse, I’m no longer just modest and vain, I’m a heartless bastard who would rather let a sick child die than expose his shortcomings in public. Fortunately, as in I Vitelloni, there is no such person who’s going to offer me that kind of money to do such a thing. My vanity remains unchallenged, just as poor Riccardo simply gazes from his rickety jetty into those cold surging waters and knows that for him there’s no escape from his small stifling town. One of the many touching things about the film is the realisation that this is the world Fellini himself escaped from, an escape which he turned into an enduring masterpiece of the cinema