I vitelloni (1953)

The impressive third film by Federico Fellini, I vitelloni, is one of his most accessible because it has less typical Fellini-esque qualities; even as an adoring Fellini fan, I recognize that not everyone would necessarily enjoy his whimsical, surreal, and fantastical depictions of Italian life. This movie, about five young men in postwar Italy, exhibits more neorealism common to other Italian directors of that time. Its groundedness makes it almost feel not like a Fellini film.

The structure of the film, like later Fellini, is rather fluid and lacks the traditional plot you expect; there is not really a beginning, middle, or end, but rather a series of vignettes showing the relationship among these men. We see their romantic, creative, and professional prospects throughout nearly two hours with them, told with wit and realism. It is a picture into typical Italian life for a very particular subset of the population: late twentysomething / early thirtysomething men.

This may be a result of the release date of the film (in the early 1950s), but the chronology and age of the characters plays an interesting role in our perspective of them. In Italian, vitelloni is slang for slackers, and these men certainly fit that bill, loafing through life rather aimlessly. Given that one of the men turns 30 during the course of the film, we can calculate backwards and figure out that these men would have just been too young (under 18) when World War II hit. Their experience was vastly different than those just older than them, and did not experience the hardships and devastation of war abroad. This theme is evident in their relationships with those older than them, as the men lack the discipline and seriousness of their parents.

In addition to their immaturity by age, we also see the recurring Fellini theme of reckless and insensitive masculinity. The standard tropes of Italian machismo, of being overbearing and aggressive towards women and overall arrogance are shown in all the young men. These negative qualities, however, do backfire and they are forced to deal with the consequences.

While not his most memorable or even one of his best works, Federico Fellini’s I vitelloni is still a great piece of art, reflective of its time and culture.

Two Women (1960)

Like Bicycle Thieves over a decade earlier, Vittorio de Sica’s powerful and, at times, heart-wrenching drama Two Women explores the relationship between parent and child, and how far a parent will go to protect his or her family.

Sophia Loren gives a phenomenal performance, worthy of the Academy Award she won, with an emotional range and intensity I have never seen from her. Her acting flows from stern authority to bleak desparation with an authenticity that is difficult to achieve, yet she does so in a way that makes it look easy.

Granted, much of that is due to de Sica’s neorealistic filmmaking. Again, similar to Bicycle Thieves, we are given a snapshot of Italy at a specific time and place, rich with all the politics and people we would expect in that era. For a director so in control as de Sica certainly was, it sure doesn’t feel like it; there is nothing cinematic-feeling about this film, which really does place us in the midst of the action without hyper stylized techniques to distract from the narrative.

This subdued method of filmic enunciation makes the characters that much more accessible. When tragedy befalls the three leads, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sophia Loren, and her daughter, we are truly heartbroken; we shared in these experiences with them, and we share their pain.

De Sica’s masterpiece Two Women takes audiences through all the cruelty and pain of war, and meets it with the strength humanity embodies even in the face of desperation. This is a wonderful film that illustrates the power of love and family when all else is lost.

Breathless (1960)

Breathless is a film that leaves you just that; it is a brisk 90something minute journey that rarely slows down, delivering an exhilarating experience through both its narrative and its filmic style.

Godard’s first film follows a man on the run, after committing a murder in rural France, who reunites with a former flame, an American reporter. The two are both the pursuers and the pursued, whose roles constantly shift both among themselves and with their surroundings. The power plays among the two of them are just as compelling as their experiences on the edge of the law.

Through brilliant editing techniques, such as jump cuts and sound continuity, the action unfolds upon the audience with great efficiency and effectiveness. We see the full extent of their actions and their dialogue, quickened by the luxury of jump cuts, eliminating that which is not necessary and heightening the sense of urgency throughout the entire film.

Even when the two are at rest, passing the time in a hotel after being pursued by the authorities, the pace does not slow down, as we witness very well-written conversations between the young lovers. They view life with a cynicism that is somehow fatalistic yet charming, with an authenticity rare to characters with such a negative perspective. It rings as true, not the cliche that it has become in a post-Breathless world.

In addition to its own merits, which are plentiful, Breathless is such an essential viewing due to how influential it has become. Both its formal techniques, of story and script, as well as its informal aspects, such as editing and sound, have paved the way for many modern films. Even among our contemporary cinema, though, Breathless still delivers an exhilarating and truly breathtaking ride.