For our 2016 Winter Marathon, we decided for the first time (at least since the original marathon featuring Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy, which wasn’t really conceived to be a director-focused event) to feature a foreign director – and we picked one of the greats in Federico Fellini.
And just as traditionally we’ve done American directors but we moved to an Italian, so as I usually write up all three films in the marathon in a single post, I’m going to break them up this time. And not just in a fit of pique, but for a decent reason, and that being that I’m planning to do a pretty in-depth analysis of the second film in the sequence (8 1/2) but not so much for the other two. And as such they just don’t feel like they belong together. Separate pages. Not really a big deal.
With that out of the way, let’s get to a quick review of the first film on the night, 1954’s La Strada. La Strada is an early Fellini film (his fourth feature) and it comes six years before La Dolce Vita ushers in his compulsion to treat film as a non-narrative medium. Here, there really is something that stands as a story, and it starts with the traveling strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) arriving at a poorly seaside residence.
It turns out that it isn’t Zampanò’s first visit here – in fact he brings the tragic news that his assistant Rosa, who was the eldest daughter of the struggling widow, has passed away. (No, the film isn’t set in 2016.) But, he also brings the good news that for the low, low price…I mean the high, high price of 10,000 Lire he is willing to abscond with the family’s second eldest child Gelsomina and to put her in the same role. (Not rôle. I mean, why in the world do people, particularly British people, feel the need to spell “role” with a circumflex? Even the Googs doesn’t seem to have a good answer other than “it’s a snooty British thing perpetuated by people who want everybody else to know that somebody waved some French at them sometime in the past”. Anyway.) Gelsomina’s mother is quite eager to receive the proffered cash yet is somehow so very reluctant to let Gelsomina go when the time comes (which is like, after lunch). Look, you knew what you were getting into, lady.
Gelsomina is a somewhat slow study, though Zampanò eventually teaches her to both play the trumpet (and the trombone, and the drums) and to announce him in the particular fashion he requires.
As an aside, the single greatest quality of Giuletta Masina (incidentally Fellini’s wife), who plays Gelsomina, is her ability to capture, and indeed swing between extremes of emotion.
The expressivity of her face is perhaps second to none in filmdom. I seriously cannot remember another actor with both the depth of emotional range and the ability to switch it on and off that Masina demonstrates in La Strada. Bar none.
And it really plays for the film, because Gelsomina’s life is a mixture of joy and wonder in her childlike outlook on life, and of sorrow at the cruel treatment she receives from Zampanò, who is, frankly, a bastard. He physically abuses her, he mentally abuses her, and while it’s not terribly clear whether or not they are in a sexual relationship, he does refer to her as his wife (though she is not) while at the same time having basically zero hesitation to hook up for the night with any local hottie who makes a pass at him, to the lengths that he doesn’t mind that he leaves her alone to sleep on the street while he carries on his affairs. If the motorcycle-hooked wagon is rockin’, don’t bother knockin’, Gelsomina.
As a result of this mistreatment, Gelsomina eventually flees him and meets a high-wire artist simply known as The Fool (Richard Basehart).
Zampanò quickly tracks Gelsomina down and forces her to return to his service, but in short order they join a traveling circus where The Fool is also employed. The Fool, who has known Zampanò for some time, takes incredible delight in tormenting the mirthless strongman – torment that The Fool evidently believes is meant in playful jest but which Zampanò takes as repeated mortal insult. At any rate, Gelsomina and The Fool begin to become closer until a brawl between The Fool and Zampanò lands her patron in jail. Both combatants are unceremoniously ejected from the circus and while it is clear that Gelsomina wants to go off with The Fool, his own philosophy – that every single thing in the universe, even a lowly pebble, has a purpose – eventually convinces her to stay with Zampanò. Her purpose, she believes, is to look after him.
Still, he tries her patience, first with his ungrateful decision to steal from a convent that has graciously put them up for the night. That, however, is only a prelude to the tragedy of the film.
Zampanò and Gelsomina come across The Fool broken down on the road, and rather than help, Zampanò decides to give The Fool the beating of his life. And he does, because despite the fact that Zampanò didn’t really mean to do it, he ends up by killing The Fool.
This is not remotely good for already-somewhat-fragile Gelsomina. She descends into a stupor from which she seemingly won’t recover, and after some weeks Zampanò, in desperation, abandons her while she is napping.
Years later, in Zampanò’s travels, he hears a peasant woman singing a simple song of Gelsomina’s invention. He asks her where she learned the song, and he finds out that years before she had taken in a vagrant girl who would sing it. Where is that vagrant girl? She has died long ago. And Zampanò, on learning of her tragic fate, wanders down to the seaside where he first found her, and drinks. The End.
Point: Fellini absolutely loves the seaside. The beach seems to figure significantly as a setting in…to my recollection every Fellini film I’ve seen. La Strada begins and ends there. The seductive Saraghina of 8 1/2 lives by the sea. The village portrayed in Amarcord is set by the sea. The most pivotal scenes in La Dolce Vita (which I screened for potential inclusion in the marathon), including the ambiguous ending, occur on the strand. I’d have to re-view Roma and Satyricon and Nights of Cabiria, but I think there’s enough here to establish a trend. Just worth pointing out.
Point 2: La Strada is a really, really depressing movie. For all the joy that Masina can portray, La Strada is a true tragedy. It was a bit fun to tease our marathon viewers into believing that things would only go downhill from there, but in point of fact 8 1/2 is far more emotionally neutral as a film and Amarcord is positively joyous on the whole. But despite the depression, it’s a very good movie and well worth the time.