Wednesday, August 31, 2011

La Strada

La Strada by the Italian film-director Federico Fellini (1920-93) is the story of the relationship between strong-man performer Zampano (Anthony Quinn) and his assistant Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina). It's the film which won the first ever Oscar for Best Foreign Language in 1954 and in which Fellini subtly side-steps the agenda of Italian Neo-realism to develop his own unique perspective upon  human nature.

Zampano, arriving at a remote coastal hovel, offers 10,000 lira to Gelsomina's impoverished mother to take her daughter away with him. Together Zampano and Gelsomina traverse Italy on a motor-cycle caravan making a meagre living by Zampano's performing a strong-man act in which, expanding his chest he breaks apart the links of an iron chain. However Zampano is also an unfeeling bully who, although training Gelsomina as his assistant, treats her little better, if not worse than a dog, speaking little and expressing no feelings towards her. Yet Gelsomina endures her cruel treatment, having no other person, home or income. When she and Zampano join the Circus troop of one Senior Giraffa, the real tragedy begins to unfold; soon during their brief time as circus performers, they encounter the Fool, a daring tight-rope walker with an unexplained antipathy toward Zampano. The Fool admits that he himself does not know the reason behind his dislike of Zampano and with a frequently irritating giggle needlessly taunts and ridicules him. The Fool's teasing of Zampano leads to tragic consequences upon the lives and destiny of all three central characters.

It's been suggested that the character of the Fool is a voice-piece for Fellini who experienced a serious clinical depression during the production of La Strada, in particular the romantic heart-to-heart moment  when the Fool confesses to Gelsomina -

Everything has a purpose. I don’t know the purpose of this stone, I’d have to be God to know that. But it has one. Because if it’s useless all is useless, even the stars.

In contrast to the Fool's sensitivity and understanding of human nature (except his own) the brutish Zampano when finally pressed by Gelsomina about the contents of his inner life boorishly declares - there's nothing to think about.

Fellini’s La Strada (The Road) is unusual in its casting of two American actors, starring Anthony Quinn (1915-2001) as the bomber jacket clad, motor-biking strong-man Zampano and Richard Basehart (1914-84) as the enigmatic Fool. But it is the Italian actress Giulietta Masina (1921-1994) as the innocent dreamer Gelsomina who steals the limelight. Masina's rapid, highly expressive and fluent facial features speak swifter than words throughout the film. As the unloved and maltreated Gelsomina, Giulietta Masina, with a nod towards Charlie Chaplin's world-famous tramp, creates her own clown-like pathos. Masina who was Fellini's wife for fifty years, spoke of  the English-born comic genius and Hollywood's first superstar thus  -

‘Chaplin deeply moves me. My husband and I cannot watch any of his films in it entirety. We are always so stirred that we have to leave the theatre before the end of the projection. He’s a great artist. He saw our film in England and declared during a press conference that Gelsomina was his spiritual daughter’.

The back-drop to La Strada includes shots not only of Italy's varied landscape but also the numerous apartment blocks which sprang up in towns throughout Italy in the 1950's. It's against the back-drop of a desolate mezzo-montano landscape that Zampano finally abandons Gemolina to her fate, even though she is  seriously mentally traumatized by events. For many years after making La Strada both Federico Fellini and his wife Guiletta Masina would regularly receive fan-mail from women who declared their lives and destinies were similar to those of Gelsomina or of being trapped in a  loveless relationship with a Zampano-like person. 

The soundtrack to La Strada is composed by Fellini's life-time musical collaborator, Nino Rota (1911-1979) who also composed the soundtrack to The Godfather. Nino's score is not merely incidental, but integral to the film and features some very modern-sounding Mambo-style music in a cafe scene, in which Zampano abandons Gelsomina for a one-night affair, collecting her from the street the next morning without a word of explanation for his behaviour. It's the Fool who teaches Gelsomina to play a slightly melancholy melody upon the trumpet. Not wanting to state spoilers, Gelsomina's poignant trumpet tune lives on to become a sharp prick upon Zampano's conscience, haunting him when hearing it several years later. The importance of this melodic theme for the actress Gulietta Masina can be gauged by the fact that when Fellini  died at the age of 73, a day after their fiftieth wedding anniversary, she requested the theme music of  La Strada entitled Improvviso dell'Angelo by Nino Rota to be played during her husband's funeral ceremony held in Rome.

Shortly after making La Strada Fellini became fascinated with his own inner world of dream imagery which subsequently became a rich fuel for his creativity. He also began to take an interest in parapsychology and the psychology of Carl Jung, reading his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963). Fellini once stated-

In dreams there is nothing without significance. Every image therefore also has significance in the film. There is no such thing as coincidence, there is nothing unwanted, extraneous in a dream. Nothing is without significance. Each colour, each picture means something, nothing has been put there in order to resemble reality, or in order to copy something pre-existent. This is the thing that gives film its heraldic, aristocratic identity, which puts it on a level with all other forms of art.

Along with a growing interest in dreams, parapsychology and the psychology of C.G. Jung, Fellini in 1964, under the supervision of his analyst, experimented with the drug LSD. For many years he was reserved about what happened to him one Sunday afternoon after ingesting LSD, however in 1992 a year before his death, Fellini  spoke of his experience thus-

'objects and their functions no longer had any significance. All I perceived was perception itself, the hell of forms and figures devoid of human emotion and detached from the reality of my unreal environment. I was an instrument in a virtual world that constantly renewed its own meaningless image in a living world that was itself perceived outside of nature. And since the appearance of things was no longer definitive but limitless, this paradisical awareness freed me from the reality external to my self. The fire and the rose, as it were, became one.

The leisurely pace of La Strada, surely one of the earliest of all 'Road-Movies', allows Fellini to introduce curious scenarios and settings which anticipate his predilection for dream-imagery, the surreal and even the grotesque in his later films. Examples of Fellini's 'dream-imagery' are abundant throughout 8½ (1963), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Satyricon (1969) and in Roma (1972). The near-obsessive excesses of Fellini's dream-imagery are manifest in less critically acclaimed films such as his homage to Casanova (1976).

Fellini's La Strada goes beyond the constraints of Italian neo-realist cinema with its insistence upon realistic depiction of the lives of ordinary, working-class Italians struggling in the economic conditions of post-war Italy. Fellini's  portrait of the socio-path Zampano and the weak and indecisive Gelsomina, shifts far from the rigid agenda of Italian neo-realism into the realm of psychological portraiture and motivations of the psyche. But above all else La Strada besides including a sometimes disturbing pathology of a man who is unable to express his feelings, explores  the mystery of love and the deep need inside the human soul to both give and receive love.

1 comment:

teegee said...

I know of few films so memorable as La Strada. In vain I saw his later films without finding its equal or its like. It is indeed like Chaplin, but not his own latest films; it is a bit comparable to the first part of Les Enfants du Paradis. Anthony Quinn did a masterly portrayal of the defective Zampano. Also, thereafter whenever I saw a strong-man, chain-breaking act on the streets of Sicily or Greece, I thought of La Strada. And the trumpet-playing is a profound masterstroke. Dreams, as such (and I do have dreams obviously a part of my waking inner life), are nothing like the realizations of this film. Also, it is another of those films of the 50s which I saw, new, in my twenties.
One of your best posts, too.