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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

La Strada

Director: Federico Fellini
Country: Italy
Year: 1954

“We don’t really know who woman is. She remains in that precise place within man where darkness begins. Talking about women means talking about the darkest part of ourselves, the undeveloped part, the true mystery within. In the beginning, I believe man was complete and androgynous-both male and female, or neither, like angels. Then came the division, and Eve was taken from him. So the problem for man is to reunite himself with the other half of his being, to find the woman who is right for him-right be she is simply a projection, a mirror of himself. A man can’t become whole or free until he has set woman free-his woman. It’s his responsibility, not hers. He can’t be complete, truly alive until he makes her his sexual companion, and not a slave of libidinous acts or a saint with a halo.”

“My work is my only relationship to everything.”

“It’s easier to be faithful to a restaurant than it is to a woman.”

“Giulietta is a special case. She is not just the main actress in a number of my films, but their inspiration as well… So, in the case of Giulietta’s films, she herself is the theme.”

All quotes: Federico Fellini

Background

Hey, our first Fellini film (in this series, I mean)! Problem: If I try to tell you about Fellini’s entire life and oeuvre, I’ll be writing all night. So, I thought – I’ll just write about his career up to today’s film. But that would only bring us up to 1954, plus we’ll be watching The White Sheik in a few weeks, and he made that in 1952! As a compromise, I’ll give you a gloss on the first half of Fellini’s life now, and I’ll write about the second half (including the part where he dies) when we watch The White Sheik. Fair enough?

FELLINI, PART I (BIRTH THROUGH LA DOLCE VITA)

Fellini was born in Rimini, Italy, in 1920. His father was a working-class traveling salesman of no particular religion, but his mother came from an upper-class family of devout Roman Catholics. This dichotomy would become source material for much of his creative output.

Federico was first enrolled at a Catholic school (The Sisters of Vincenzo), but later moved to a public school. He spent his free time drawing, reading comics, and putting on elaborate puppet shows. Many characters and events from Fellini’s childhood would feature prominently in his later films: Amarcord references both the historic sailing of the ocean liner SS Rex and Fellini’s mandatory enrollment in a Fascist youth group; La Dolce Vita references a mysterious giant fish that washed up on the beach of Rimini in 1934; and Gelsomina’s clown getup in today’s film is based on a comic strip character named Happy Hooligan.

Still, Fellini would insist, it’s not quite as simple as that: “To say that my films are autobiographical is an overly facile liquidation, a hasty classification. It seems to me that I have invented almost everything: childhood, character, nostalgias, dreams, memories, for the pleasure of being able to recount them.”

After high school, Fellini cast about for employment, drawing portraits and trying his hand as a journalist. Finally, he found success writing a regular humor column titled Will You Listen to What I Have to Say? At the same time, he joined the editorial board of the magazine Marc’Aurelio. Suddenly, Fellini was thrust into a world populated by celebrities, Marxist theorists, artists, and authors. During this period, he met several of his future collaborators, and made the contacts that would ultimately lead to his future career.

Fellini found success as a gag writer for radio shows, published his first stories, and read voraciously, all while avoiding the draft; Mussolini had declared war on France and England in 1940. Around this time, Fellini met his wife-to-be, Giulietta Masina, who was working as a radio personality.

Fellini wrote his first screenplays during the war, was sent to Libya for a time, narrowly escaped bombardment by the Allies, and was eventually freed from fear of the draft when the building housing his medical records was destroyed. He hid with Giulietta in her aunt’s apartment, and married her after Mussolini’s fall in 1943.

During the postwar years, Fellini worked with Roberto Rossellini (Isabella’s father), co-writing and co-directing the neo-realist classics Rome, Open City (that’s one film, not two) and Paisan. He also collaborated with Alberto Lattuada on several films, culminating in Fellini’s first feature film, Variety Lights, a comedy about small-time performers, released in 1950. Though Fellini’s work with Rossellini was acclaimed, his own debut film (actually co-directed with Lattuada) did not fare as well; Variety Lights met with poor reviews and left Fellini with debts that he would not settle for a decade.

Next up was Fellini’s solo directing debut: The White Sheik, about a newlywed couple in Rome to visit the Pope. It, too, was met by catcalls. Fellini had “not the slightest aptitude for cinema direction,” proclaimed one review.

Fellini found his stride with 1953’s I Vitelloni, the prototypical “bunch of young working-class guys hang out, talk trash, and stumble awkwardly into adulthood” film. Diner, to name one example, would not exist if I Vitelloni had not existed first.

1954’s La Strada was a commercial success and generally reviewed well, but it was also during this period that Fellini first experienced the symptoms of clinical depression. Critics and fellow filmmakers expecting another film strictly within the neo-realist genre were disappointed and even outraged. They accused La Strada of being too sentimental, of employing archetypes instead of realistic human characters, and – perhaps most heretical of all – using Hollywood stars instead of “real” people. Despite the grumbling, La Strada went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, the first of four such wins for Fellini.

Stories recounted by a petty criminal on the set of La Strada led to Fellini’s next film, 1955’s Il Bidone, the tale of a con that ends in despair and death.

During the making of Il Bidone, Fellini met a “shantytown prostitute” (I’m quoting Wikipedia here). The stories of her hardscrabble life led to 1956’s Nights of Cabiria, again starring Masina as a vulnerable, childlike woman treated poorly by the world.

Inspired by stories of scandalous, amoral behavior by celebrities, and by the equally amoral behavior of the press, eager to capture and publicize each new outrage, Fellini wrote his next film, 1960’s La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life). The lead character, a sleazy tabloid journalist, employs a photographer named – wait for it – Paparazzo. From which we get the word paparazzi. Bet you didn’t know that.

La Dolce Vita was applauded and reviled in equal measure – denounced by the Vatican, but awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes. More importantly, it signaled a clear break between Fellini’s earlier neo-realist films and his later, more phantasmagorical films.

And that’s all we have time for today! When we watch The White Sheik, I’ll tackle the rest of Il Maestro’s life and work. Until then, I leave you with… La Strada.

Synopsis

By the sea, diminutive and boyish Gelsomina (played by Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s long-suffering wife) gathers sticks. Her siblings call her back home: “There’s a man on a motorcycle! He says Rosa is dead!”

The man on the motorcycle is the brutish circus strong man Zampanò, played by a grubby, cigarette-chewing Anthony Quinn. Zampanò had previously taken Gelsomina’s sister Rosa as his assistant-slash-sex-slave. Rosa has died under mysterious circumstances, and Zampanò is unhappy. In lieu of a full refund, Mama offers up Gelsomina: “She’ll do what she’s told. She just came out a little strange.” (By “strange,” I assume she means “mute” and/or “mildly autistic.”)

Gelsomina can refuse, but then Mama will have to return Zampanò’s money; money they can use to fix the roof and feed the little ones. Gelsomina succumbs, as we all do, to Mom’s Guilt Trip, and she packs up to leave with Zampanò. “He’ll teach you a trade,” Mama promises. “I can even teach dogs,” agrees Zampanò.

Gelsomina, sad yet hopeful, climbs in the back of Zampanò’s vehicle (which is something like a covered wagon welded to the front half of a motorcycle), and travels away down “la strada” (the road). That’s a little Italian I taught ya right there.

“This chain is a quarter-inch thick!” Zampanò proclaims to the small crowd gathered in a village square. “By simply expanding my pectorals – or ‘chest muscles’ – I’ll bust the hook in two.” A seasoned showman, he slyly hints at the possibility of disaster: “A vein might burst and make me spit blood… Sensitive members of the audience may want to look away!”

Gelsomina watches, silent and wide-eyed, from the van.

Outside of town, strong man and assistant stop for lunch and for Gelsomina’s continued education. “My women have always looked smart,” proclaims Zampanò, handing his new assistant a ridiculous clown’s outfit. Next comes the drumming lesson; every time Gelsomina strikes a bum note, Zampanò whips her with a switch.

Soon enough, she is banging away like Ringo Starr. When night falls, Zampanò shoves her in the back of the van and rapes her.

At the next performance, Gelsomina has become part of the act. She wears clown makeup and provides amateurish drum rolls and rim shots as required. Zampanò now refers to her as his “wife.” Gelsomina seems to be genuinely enjoying herself, grinning broadly and mugging for the audience. As a closing act, they perform a strange little skit in which Zampanò mispronounces common words and Gelsomina imitates a duck. It ends with Zampanò shooting her, and the crowd goes wild!

The show is a success, and our heroes can afford to celebrate in a local bar, frequented by traveling performers of all stripes. Gelsomina eats everything placed within arm’s reach.

Zampanò gets roaring drunk, picks up a gap-toothed redhead, and drives off to “see the fireworks.” Gelsomina is left behind on the sidewalk. The next morning, she finds Zampanò sleeping off a hangover in a field outside of town.

Gelsomina picks flowers and plays with children. When the strong man awakes, it is time to move on.

During the ride to the next village, Gelsomina voices her concerns about their relationship: “You’re one of those men who run around with women, aren’t you?” “Knock it off!” grumbles Zampanò, his head still aching. “If you want to stay with me, you’ve got to learn one thing: Keep your mouth shut!”

Gelsomina and Zampanò perform at an Italian wedding. The children lead Gelsomina to the room of a sick boy. “Make him laugh!” they plead. Meanwhile, Zampanò is putting the moves on the cook, a crotchety old sharp-tongued beauty. He gets some clothes out of the deal, but Gelsomina is heartbroken by his habitual infidelity.

While Zampanò sleeps, Gelsomina leaves. She follows a marching band into the next town, where some kind of bizarre, fetishistic Catholic ceremony is taking place. Crowds throng the streets, carrying horror-movie images of a crucified Jesus. An immaculate slaughtered pig hangs in a shop window, an ironic counterpoint. A glorious float dedicated to the Madonna approaches, fully laden with gold leaf and majestic sunbeams. As it passes, we can see the shoddy workmanship that holds it together; all bailing-wire and rusty nails. A neon “BAR” sign illuminates the revelry from above.

Night falls, and a high-wire artist named “The Fool” (played by Richard Basehart, whom you may remember from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) performs above the village square.

“And now, The Fool will eat a plate of spaghetti while suspended 125 feet above the ground!” announces his assistant over the public address system. Gelsomina watches in amazement.

Hours later, the party is over. Gelsomina sits alone in the cold. Zampanò arrives, slaps her around, and throws her in the back of his crazy bike-wagon.

Now they are staying in Rome, at a compound of like-minded transient entertainers, all of whom are contracted to perform in the Giraffa Circus, strictly for tips. Childlike Gelsomina, though angry at Zampanò, is excited by the ambiance, by the presence of so many artists.

Also at the compound: The Fool. The Fool and Zampanò do not like each other, and it seems clear that their simmering antagonism will end in tragedy for one or both men. Maybe even Gelsomina.

Zampanò does his pectoral-muscles-of-steel routine, which seems rather tawdry and unimpressive after The Fool’s dazzling performance on the flying trapeze.

To make matters worse, The Fool sits in the audience and heckles. After the show, Zampanò vows to kill him. See? What’d I tell you? TRAGEDY.

When Zampanò goes into town, The Fool enlists Gelsomina in his comedy act. Zampanò returns and is not pleased. “She only works with me!” he rails. The Fool tosses a handy bucket of water on the enraged bodybuilder, and Zampanò produces a knife. By the time the dust settles, Zampanò is in jail, and both the strong man and the trapeze artist are summarily banned from future performances in the Giraffa Circus. Gelsomina alone is welcome to join the circus when they leave, but she’s not sure what to do: “Makes no difference whether I go with them or stay with Zampanò,” she cries to The Fool. “I’m of no use to anybody, and I’m sick of living.”

The Fool asks Gelsomina to join him on the road, but she demurs. Realizing that she will ultimately stay with the brute Zampanò, The Fool tries to help her feel better about her fate: “Zampanò wouldn’t keep you if you weren’t worth something to him… Maybe he likes you.”

“If I don’t stay with him, who will?” Gelsomina asks through her tears, talking herself into a future of abuse and grief. The Fool drops her and the bike-wagon off at the jail, awaiting Zampanò’s release. Singing a cheerful song, The Fool skips away down the street.

Strong man and assistant are on the road again. Stopping by the sea, Gelsomina muses aloud: “Once all I though about was going home, but I don’t care so much anymore. Now I feel my home is with you.”

Later, they stop at a convent. Gelsomina entertains the nuns with a trumpet solo (playing a wistful tune that The Fool taught her), and Zampanò chops wood. They sleep in the barn.

During the night, Gelsomina asks him, “Do you like me a little?” “Knock it off,” replies Zampanò. Before the sun rises, Zampanò tries to steal some silver icons from the convent. Gelsomina refuses to help, and he beats her.

On the road, Zampanò stops by a broken-down car. The car belongs to The Fool. Zampanò intends merely to beat him senseless and teach him a lesson, but by the end of the brief fight, The Fool lies dead in the weeds. Panicked, Zampanò dumps body and car into a ravine, hoping that the local CSI unit will see a car accident instead of the truth, which is MURDER. Gelsomina weeps as they speed away from the scene of the crime.

At subsequent performances of the pectoral-muscles-of-steel routine, Gelsomina is distracted and disheveled. “The Fool is hurt,” she moans, disconsolate. Traveling through the mountains, Gelsomina retreats into her grief as winter takes hold.

At a snowy rest stop, Zampanò defends his actions: “I bloodied his nose a bit. I turn around, he drops dead. The rest of my life in prison for a couple of punches?” “The Fool is hurt,” replies shell-shocked Gelsomina. “If I don’t stay with you, who will?”

The fire dies and Gelsomina falls asleep. Zampanò, unable to tolerate her innocent, accusing eyes for one more minute, leaves her with a blanket and a trumpet, and drives away.

Several years have passed. Zampanò, looking markedly older and diminished, is performing with a cut-rate carnival in a seaside town. A local woman hanging laundry sings a familiar song: Gelsomina’s song. The one she learned from The Fool.

“A girl who was here a long time ago used to sing it,” explains the laundry lady, and proceeds to tell the sad story of Gelsomina’s fate. She stumbled into town, half-mad, sick with fever, and carrying a trumpet. Taken in by a local family, she got over the fever but never spoke again. A short time later, she died. There was an investigation, but no family could be found. Zampanò staggers away, eyes glazed.

Later, Zampanò performs his pectoral-muscles-of-steel routine for a small audience, reciting his lines perfunctorily. He drinks to dull his unarticulated pain and rage, gets himself tossed out of a bar, and stumbles through the streets, raving. “I don’t need nobody!” he shouts.

Bruised, defeated and, finally, heartbroken, Zampanò sits alone on the beach and weeps.

What I Liked

Giulietta Masina is like a more forlorn Harpo Marx, every indignity registering on her expressive, round face. Zampanò’s treatment of her is appalling, yet her curiosity and her open heart remain undimmed. When her spirit is finally broken, it is genuinely devastating.

Even before seeing La Strada, Zampanò was the role that I most closely identified with Anthony Quinn; it seems like the true character lurking beneath every other role I’ve seen him perform. Despite his animal rage and small-minded cruelty, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Zampanò. He is only just barely smart enough to realize what a wreck he’s made of his life, and that dooms him. Watching La Strada for the second time, I noticed the similarities to one of my other favorite films: Raging Bull. Like that film, La Strada is about a man who realizes too late that the brutality for which he is applauded and by which he defines himself, is the same brutality that destroys everything he loves and leaves him bereft. It’s like Raging Bull if Jake’s wife played a larger role, and if Raging Bull ended with the scene of Jake impotently pounding the cell wall.

Richard Basehart, whom I had only ever seen in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, is a marvel in La Strada; I didn’t doubt for a minute that he was an accomplished high-wire artist and clown. Every time he appears on screen, he gives the film a jolt of joyous, nervous energy, yet he has the sense to underplay the serious scenes nicely. The scene where he first asks Gelsomina to join him, but then, realizing that she is committed to her fate, chooses to comfort her and help her rejoin Zampanò instead, is one example of his ability to smoothly and believably shift gears.

I loved the scene with the cranky old cook who Zampanò beds: “Do you think I’m not flesh and blood?” she demands. “I like sweets after my dinner.” And I think we all know what that means.

I also enjoyed the cinematography, focusing almost exclusively on the rubble-strewn outskirts of towns, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings. Desolate, and also beautiful.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Gelsomina is so likable and so vulnerable that it’s difficult to watch her suffering constant abuse at the hands of Zampanò. That is the central crux of the story, of course, and the film doesn’t condone Zampanò’s behavior. Still: Difficult to watch.

As Matt has mentioned in some previous reviews, most(all?) European films in this period were dubbed after the fact, which lends an unreal feeling to the proceedings, especially when a character is clumsily faking a trumpet performance, but the sound that comes out is pitch-perfect. There are several moments like that, and they always pulled me out of the action.

Should You See It?

The first time I saw La Strada, I saw it with my wife. While I certainly found the scenes of abuse upsetting, my wife found them doubly so. I believe that La Strada is a lyrical and heartbreaking work of cinematic art, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. At the same time, I want to be clear that it contains a fairly blunt depiction of an abusive relationship, without the moralizing or last-act rehabilitation that you might find in a Hollywood film.

Next: Summertime

4 Comments

  1. I’m from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

  2. Excellent blog! Congratulations. I love Fellini! See my blog eanavevai.blogspot.com
    (soory my poor english)

  3. One note: Z left Gelsomina with her TRUMPET (not the nun’s silver, which I don’t think he actually got, anyway, because Gelsomina wouldn’t help him with her tiny hands). When Gelsomina was taken in by the family in town, she played the tune (which she learned from The Fool) on her trumpet. The laundry-lady at the end was humming the tune (which she learned from Gelsomina). The tune therefore reminded Z of both the man he killed and the woman he destroyed.

  4. Nothing is more depressing than a sad clown. A sad clown in an abusive relationship? Even MORE depressing. A sad clown in an abusive relationship suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Put the gun to my head now.

    The story unfolds with Anthony Quinn showing up. Seems he gets his assistants from a woman with many children. The eldest (Rosa) has died (we have no idea how or what from – she had a fever??) and Tony has shown up for a new assistant. With 10,000 lire he “hires” the next oldest daughter. Though you’d think that she’d be a bit, well, PISSED to be sold to Tony and forced to live the life of a gypsy clown – she actually WANTS to live the life of a gypsy clown. She wants to see the world, sing, dance, live and explore.

    So off they go on what quickly turns into a road trip movie. She is the clown to Tony’s lead. Tony plays a strong man with massive pecs who can BEND A CHAIN. I know, hold back your shock. He quickly trains (through using a switch) his assistant to announce his arrival and basically MC his performance. It takes her a while to learn this but soon they’re having some success.

    Flush with said success they go out to dinner where she eats both lamb AND veal and he drinks both 2 or 3 liters of wine and then high-tails it out of town with a woman of the evening leaving his wonderful assistant wondering what is going on. Still…she sticks with him.

    When he returns to get her, she confronts his sexual ways and he tells her to mind her own business. You see, within a few minutes we know that she’s smitten with him but that he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about her.

    After a couple more performances he pisses her off to the point where she runs away from him and ends up in a town square where “The Fool” performs a high-wire act. Smitten by the fool, she sees what can REALLY be done when you’re clowning and taking risks. Still…she’s alone with no real motivation to move forward (though there’s a scene where she sees people walking religious icons around and she’s moved by it).

    The next morning Tony shows up in his modified motorcycle-motorhome and orders her to get in.

    I guess tired of going it on their own, they officially join a circus where “The Fool” (and handsome bugger at that) also performs. Seems he and Tony have a bit of a history and he likes to get on Tony’s nerves and he hates him and after “The Fool” interrupts his amazing CHAIN BENDING PERFORMANCE – Tony goes after him. So there’s going to be some blood shed…you just know it.

    A few days later, and now in Rome, “The Fool” is trying to incorporate her in their act. Tony will have none of it. When “TF” throws a bucket of water on Mr. “I CAN BEND CHAINS!” – it is so on – it’s off! Tony chases the guy down and ends up getting arrested.

    Distraught as to what to do, our Sad Clown is welcomed to travel with the group (GO!) but she doesn’t know what to do. She meets up with “TF” who offers to take her with him (GO!) but she does not. Then he tells her that her purpose is to stay with Tony (NO!) so the next morning she waits dutifully outside the jail.

    On the road once again, they stay at a convent. The Sisters, fearing for our “SC” offer to let her stay with them (GO!) but she doesn’t. Even after Tony steals from NUNS! (The guy steals from NUNS! – And he bends chains.)

    Resolved to live her life of subservient sad clowness – they continue to travel the back roads of Italy running into…guess who?! “The Fool!” Seems he’s got a bit of a flat tire. Tony decides that he’s going to rough the guy up a bit but ends up killing him. Dumping the body in a ravine and then tipping over the guy’s car (much better act than bending chains – if you ask me) – they go on the run.

    Here’s where the PTSD sets in. Seems the “SC” is now REALLY bummed about the dead guy and her lack of caring boyfriend – so she stays in bed for days, mumbles “The Fool!” and looks sadly at Tony who tells her to shut up…repeatedly.

    Having had enough, he slips the stolen silver (I think – I couldn’t tell in my 7″ screen) under a blanket she’s resting on and he leaves her to die or….

    Cut to: YEARS later. Tony has met up with another circus act and, yes, he’s still bending chains (HASN’T EVERYONE IN ITALY SEEN THIS ACT BY NOW?).

    When he overhears a woman humming a song that “SC” used to perform – he talks to the woman. She tells him the story of the strange depressed lady who died a few years back. How she loved to sit out the sun. It all confirms to Tony that, yes, indeed the sweet sad clown he left by the side of the road lived and died without him.

    Now finally realizing that he did, indeed, love the “SC” – he performs – but his heart is not in it (but he still bends the chain). And then, that night, on the shores he cries and claws at the dirt – his heart finally broken. FINE! (Yes, FINE in Italian, FIN in French, SLUT in German.)

    WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THIS FILM:

    The woman who played the sad clown was amazingly good. Sweet, cute and hilarious all at the same time. Anthony Quinn was also very good in what was, basically, a one-note role. There’s no character arc, nor does there really need to be one. Yes, at the end, he’s devastated but…my heart didn’t really break for him. He beat his companion, killed a man, slept around and bent some chains. What’s to love? Not a whole helluva lot.

    WHAT I DISLIKED ABOUT THIS FILM:

    Though the character that Tony played was off-putting, he was off-putting in the way that Robert Duvall played “The Great Santini” – he’s an asshole. You know this. It’s up to you whether or not you want to put up with for 100 minutes or so. So, yeah, his character grated on me a bit and her putting up with it also grated on me. I so much wanted her to have a better life for herself. Either with “The Fool” or with the Nuns or with the other circus members but, alas, she stays with abusive Tony. Did I like this? No. Does it ruin the film for me? No. Because, sadly, it’s true in real life, too. I would have liked to have seen something more than bent chains (though the tipping of the car was cool).

    OVERALL:

    Interesting film. I would recommend it for the “SC” actress. She was very, VERY, good. I don’t know if I would raise it to the “classic” status that it’s in. There was still enough off-putting material and lack of character development in the role Quinn played that still kept me at a distance. Watchable. Enjoyable.

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