Reason and Unreason in Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni

Article excerpt

Fellini's recent films, particularly from 8 ½ through Fellini's Roma, have been vibrant celebrations of the irrational and suprarational forces of life. From the blatant eruption of the irrational unconscious powers of Guido and Juliet in 8 ½ and Juliet of the Spirits through the more subtle manifestations of the irrational and suprarational in the memories and narrative powers of Fellini himself in Fellini: A Director's Notebook, The Clowns, and Roma, each of Fellini's films has celebrated the release of the creative imagination from the stranglehold of reason. Even Amarcord, which moves ultimately to the exhaustion of creative energy, affirms the irrational over the rational by dispatching its intellectual lawyer-narrator with a barrage of snowballs from an unseen source near the film's end. And Fellini's Casanova, though decrying its main character's failure to break free of the claustrophobic structures of his Counter-Reformation/Enlightenment world, still sees Casanova through to a substantive explosion of creative, irrational energy : the dream which concludes the film and reveals to Casanova his failure as a lover and as a man.

In contrast to these later films, Fellini's earliest movies tend not to celebrate the irrational, but to focus on the victory of reason over unreason. Variety Lights, Fellini's first film, begins with the shot of a town clock and with the sound of tolling bells-visual and aural signs of rational clock time ruling supreme over the world of the film. And it ends with the main characters submitting to the timetables and rigid mechanical, linear world of the railroad. It might be said that the camera eye lives by the clock and dies by the timetable in Variety Lights.1 The White Sheik, Fellini's second movie, concludes with all the main characters marching martially and mechanically toward St. Peter's-a static structure which serves in the film as the headquarters of rational authority and control.

Though both these films image a world of reason triumphant, Fellini is not celebrating the triumph of reason in Variety Lights and The White Sheik; his sympathies lie clearly with the vanquished powers of unreason. But unlike his later movies which always allow, in lesser or greater degree, for the emergence of the irrational, these films depict a world virtually devoid of creative, irrational energy. In fact, their very story seems to be the lamentable absence of creative energy in a world ruled by reason.

I Vitelloni, which follows The White Sheik in Fellini's career, serves as an extremely interesting film within this context. In effect, it is composed of two different stories which function simultaneously: one which details the triumph of reason over unreason, and another which reveals the inadequacy of reason (despite its triumph) and which allows for the emergence of irrational and suprarational change as dominant forces in the world of the film. As a result, I Vitelloni functions as a film of transition, leading beyond Fellini's early "stories of reason" and toward 8 ½ and his more recent "stories of unreason."2

The Story of Reason

Reason as it appears in and pervades the world of I Vitelloni can best be described as man-made, prefabricated reality- i.e. static structures, institutions, abstractions, and repetitive mechanical patterns that make life comfortable and predictable by reducing it to simple rational meanings, values, and events. As such, reason functions not as an instrument of self-awareness and individuation (the creative role of reason in human development), but as the very opposite: as the artisan of a world which entombs the individual in convention and orthodoxy, protecting him from all that is irrational, rich, and varied in life. (In I Vitelloni, even works of imagination become "rationalized." Music such as Schubert's Ave Maria, for instance, by functioning conventionally as part of a marriage ceremony, loses its vitality as the product of creative imagination and becomes merely part of the deadening, endlessly repeated, rubric of orthodoxy. …