The Useless: the filming of the film that became a headache for Federico Fellini, but ended up consecrating him as director
It was his second film as a solo director – and his third work with a “first feature” in collaboration – but it was, without a doubt, his first great success. return again and again to Federico Fellini it is to smile at the memory of a unique creator. It is also entering a universe of which everything has been said and also nothing reaches. With an imaginary new birthday of the great Italian creator (January 20, 1920, Rimini), the opportunity to see the remastered copy of the useless (1953) is also the possibility of recognizing a film of transition between the look at the working class of neorealism to which the director had provided fruitful work as a screenwriter, as well as finding the first and indubitable signs of a cinema that, hand in hand with the dream, would create an entire conception and style own.
The Vitelloni -“the big calves”, which in provincial jargon defines those unemployed children with no horizon or aspirations but whose past allowed them to flee poverty without ever embracing a tiny hint of prosperity-, was a film that had many problems to shoot , many others to be released and that, to make matters worse, in the legacy of time it would be immediately eclipsed a year later by The Road. Unusually, the script for that movie was done and finished before Fellini even thought about it. the useless, but Luigi Rovere rejected it outright and so did Lorenzo Pegoraro, to whom he had sent the libretto, although he requested that he write another story closer to a comedy. Thus, Fellini with Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano –screenwriters of The Road– quickly developed a plot that mixed personal memories and invented stories about these young people aimlessly in a provincial town.
“Think of Rimini. Rimini: a word made of antlers, of little soldiers in a row. I can’t be objective. Rimini is a confused, fearful, tender concoction, with this great breath that is the open emptiness of the sea. Nostalgia is clearer there, especially the sea in winter, the white crests, the great wind as I saw it for the first time”, the filmmaker wrote in the book Fellini for Fellini. Some of the most famous scenes of the useless They will come from the forceful gust and the open sea in beautiful desolation.
Accepted the argument and with faceless characters, Fellini dedicated himself to selecting a cast that seemed like a proposal bordering on the absurd by virtue of its unusual mix: Franco Fabrizi, an actor with minor roles in Italian cinema and mainly known for photo novels; Leonora Ruffo, who came from playing the queen in the adventure film The Queen of Sheba; Alberto Sordi, surely the only one recognized although hated by the producer; Franco Interlenghi, an actor from the south known within the factory of Italian cinema but not by the general public; and two “figures” of different order: Leopoldo Trieste, who had been the protagonist of the white shaykh, a resounding box office flop, and Czech actress Lida Baarová, who was famous for her tumultuous affair with Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels and who in years prior to this film had lived in extreme poverty in Argentina. That was not all: one of the “vitelloni” was Riccardo Fellini, the director’s brother.
For Pegoraro, the combination of an incomprehensible title with an unknown cast was too much and he claimed at least “one star”. Fellini tried it by tempting Vittorio de Sica for the role of the veteran and famous actor who arrives in the city and is dazzled by the script that Leopoldo Vannucci, another of these losers, believes that the popular actor Sergio Natali wants to play. According to Tulio Kezich, De Sica turned down the role “concerned about being marked as really homosexual” and the character ended up played by Achille Majeroni. The cards were laid and, with more resignation than enthusiasm, Pegoraro accepted Fellini’s conditions. But there would still be more.
Sordi agreed to film the useless, but with the situation of doing it in the free time that the tour he was developing throughout Italy offered him. A) Yes, of a realization conceived as an evocation of Rimini in the province of Fellini, The Vitelloni It was a production that toured almost the entire country.: with a brilliant starting point at the Goldoni theater in Firenze, the masquerade ball takes place, shot in December 1952; filming resumed on January 15, 1953 at the Ostia quay, followed by the city of Fiumicino and also filming in Viterbo and Rome. Strictly speaking, the title evokes a jargon from Pescara where Flaiano had first thought about the development of the story, whose filming lasted six months and involved a varied technical team.
But the title was again a problem when distributors were tempted for its release, as the director recalled in dialogue with Torino Einaudi for his book Federico Fellini making a film, 1980: “A the useless no one wanted to distribute it. We were begging and looking for someone like desperate. I remember certain amazing projections. The assistants, at the end of the film, looked at me badly and squeezed producer Pegoraro’s hand, in pain, as if we were witnessing a flood or a tragedy. I remember their names, but if I remember them, it is better not to reveal them.”
“I remember a screening that was organized at two in the afternoon in the summer for the president of a large society. He came at a good pace, he was dark, super tan, he had a gold bracelet on his wrist, he was the typical car salesman that women like so much. […] They did not take it ”, Fellini continued, about the course. “It went to another distributor that did not want the title to be the useless. They recommended another title: Bums!, with the exclamation mark. I told them it was fine, but I advised them to reinforce the inventiveness with a big ogre voice that on the soundtrack said ‘Tramps!’ They accepted the original title only when Pegoraro gave them two other films that for them were totally commercial. But in the first posters and in the first copies they did not want to put the name of Alberto Sordi; ‘people are going to escape’, they said, ‘it’s unpleasant, the public can’t stand it’”. The first private screening on Italian soil was at the Porta de San Paolo in Rome, where it was coldly received.
the useless It was Fellini’s first film to be distributed internationally and its premiere a year later in Argentina was a resounding success. By then it was already preceded by excellent reviews and its moment of glory by the hand of the Silver Lion that the film won at the Venice Festival, in a year whose Golden Lion was left vacant according to the decision of a jury chaired by Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale. At just 32 years old, Federico Fellini outperformed renowned international film names such as Aleksandr Ford, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Yves Allegret, Vincente Minelli, Ingmar Bergman, William Wyler, and Josef von Sternberg in the Official Competition. On that occasion, Argentina competed for the first time for a trophy against Fellini with naked passion, by Luis César Amadori, starring María Félix and Carlos Thompson; the feat would be repeated more than two decades later, when Sergio Renán obtained the first Oscar nomination for our country with Truce and Fellini took that trophy for the memorable Amarcord. However, thanks to the useless, Fellini first came close to cherishing his own Hollywood Academy Award, receiving a nomination for best screenplay in 1958.
Fellini recommended watching the film surrounded by a popular audience and not the select world of auteur cinema, to surely enjoy the thunderous laughter of the “manga cut” when Alberto Sordi sarcastically shouts “Lavoratori” on a highway.
However, in addition to its success, the film inspired a notable number of directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose Beggar -his directorial debut- was inspired by the film. In fact, Fellini refused to produce it after seeing the first shots. Pasolini was not the only one: from Juan Antonio Bardem to George Lucas, through Stanley Kubrick, they have recognized his powerful influence.
But all that glory was far away when Fellini had to suspend filming because he did not have the funds to continue shooting or because he had to go after one of his protagonists. Ten times the useless he was on the tightrope, powerfully mixing the extended biography of memories of the province with a reality that seemed like an unattainable dream even though -as in the movie- a trip brought the apparent success of the lights of the big city closer.
the useless (The Vitelloni), by Federico Fellini, is available at xiclos.com