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.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Maias

The Portuguese novelist Eca de Queiroz's vast novel The Maias (Episodes from Romantic Life) first published in 1888, chronicles the life and fortunes of one of Portugal’s most distinguished families, the Maias. As such it offers a portrait of upper-class Portuguese society from circa 1820 to 1887, centering specifically upon the life and times of its protagonist, Carlos da Maia. 

Carlos da Maia is lovingly  nutured by his grandfather Afonso da Maia. Upon coming of age he leads the life of a privileged Portuguese aristocrat. Crucial to the story is the fact that Carlos is the last in lineage of the ancient family of da Maia. Admired by his good-looks, his fine English thoroughbred horses and impeccable taste, Carlos da Maia eventually chooses to study medicine in order to become a doctor, however he is invariably distracted from advancing himself in his profession by love, social events, his many friends and his essentially weak nature.

Much of the  novel’s broad canvas of 700 pages is a near seamless procession of glittering balls, poetry recitals, nights at the theatre and opera house, dinner parties and evening soirĂ©es which Carlos gaily attends. There's also a great deal of drinking - Port, Champagne, Cognac and wine flow in abundance as well as much fine cuisine and dining throughout the novel. More often than not Carlos is pre-occupied with a love-affair and in finding accommodation, selecting furniture and interior decoration suitable for a tasteful boudoir  for romantic trysts with his mistress. It's only towards the novel’s conclusion that a devastating revelation occurs shattering the lives of both Carlos and Afonso da Maia. The ramifications and aftermath of this revelation profoundly alters the lives of both Da Maia's and brings the novel to its tragic conclusion.

Counterbalancing the essentially tragic tale there's a strain of quite subtle humour coursing through The Maias. The novel also includes a revealing chapter which describes the events of a horse-race meeting in which the love–hate relationship of the Portuguese towards the English is explored. De Queiroz  makes cultural comparative humour about both Portugal and England thus- 

The Maquis….. continued to inveigh against Portugal. ..'This is a country fit only for picnics and funfairs. Horse-races, like many other civilized pastimes, they enjoy abroad, require, first and foremost, an educated public. Basically, we’re nothing but thugs ! What we like is cheap wine, a bit of guitar music, a good brawl, and plenty of back-slapping bonhomie afterwards ! That’s how it is !'
                                   *          *        *          *            *
‘… the national anthem is the musical definition of a nation’s character. The rhythm of a country’s national anthem is, he says, the moral rhythm of the nation… The “Marseilles” marches forth like an unsheathed sword. “God save the Queen” advances, dragging a royal train…’
‘And ours?’
‘Ours minces along in a tailcoat’.
                                               *        *         *        *
‘And tell me something else,’ Senhor Sousa Neto went on, full of interest and curiousity . ‘In England, do they have the same pleasing literature we have here, writers of serials and important poets?’
Carlos placed the stub of his cigar in the ashtray and replied shamelessly:
‘No, no, there’s none of that.’
‘I thought as much,’ said Sousa Neto. ‘They’re all businessmen over there, I suppose’.

Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900) began writing The Maias in 1878 while resident in England when living in Bristol and took over ten years to complete it. An English translation of his masterpiece was not published until 1965. Margaret Jull Costa's acclaimed translation of De Queiroz's great novel highlights its full stature as a work of world literature and captures well the witty dialogue, eccentric characters and social foibles of  Portuguese upper-class as described by Queiroz. 

The Maias is a portrait not only of the moral decline of its protagonist, Carlos da Maia, but also by implication, in its depiction of inept politicians, petty bureaucrats and dilettantism in high places, the moral decline of nineteenth century Portugal itself. Not unlike Querioz's novel The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers (unpublished in his life-time) The Maias offers the reader a portrait of upper-class Portuguese society with a back-drop of a passionate love-affair, only to deliver a devastating revelation late in the novel, which colours and shapes its tragic conclusion.

Eca de Querioz  has been compared to Balzac for his sharp eye on human nature, to Marcel Proust for his description of the prejudices of upper-class society, and to Flaubert for his realism. In fact Queiroz greatly admired Flaubert for his development of Naturalism in writing. Yet, as Margaret Jull Costa points out in her excellent introduction to the 2007 Daedlus edition of Querioz’s masterpiece, The Maias fluctuates between sympathy and stern judgement towards its protagonist and floats ambiguously between Naturalism and Romanticism in style and content. Its this undefinable stance, somewhere between a harsh portrait of the cruel reality of life and romantic idealism which imbues The Maias with a quite unique sensibility. 

Eca de Queroz’s masterpiece is a novel which deserves to be much better-known, and it probably shall in time, due to Costa's decisive translation which showcases De Queiroz as a literary figure equal to his contemporaries, Tolstoy and Dickens. The real tragedy is no longer the moral decline of Portugal, but the neglect by western readers, translators and publishers alike, of a major nineteenth century novelist.
                                                         *    *   *   *

Post top picture  - The front cover of the Dedalus paperback edition of The Maias (2007) reproduces a portrait of an aristocratic French woman by the French painter Ingres. Closer in geography, unable to find a striking Portuguese portrait, but having enjoyed viewing it at Dublin National Gallery, this post is headed by a portrait of  Dona Antonia Zarate, an actress painted by Goya cica 1805.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stargazer Lily and Sonnet

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in ordour and in hue,
Could make me any summer's story tell.
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

Sonnet 98 by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) 

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Sir Joseph Paine Monument

Located in the church of Saint Gregory's, Norwich, there's an extraordinary late 17th century monument consisting of black limestone and alabaster which is adorned with high relief carvings. 

The monument commemorates the life of Joseph Paine (1605-73) who was a staunch Royalist during the English civil war. Upon the Restoration of Monarchy in 1660 Joseph Paine, on behalf of the citizens of Norwich, presented £1000 in gold to King Charles II. He was immediately knighted and made Colonel of the City Regiment.

Paine's monument is quite unique in its depiction of various military accoutrements, all of which are carved in deep relief including- armoury, sword, stirrups, trumpet and drum, gunpowder kegs, cannon-balls and cannon. Each of these images allude to Paine's military position as Colonel of the City regiment.

One gains a better perspective of the relief-depth of the monument's carvings  when close and looking upwards.

At the base of the monument is a winged and crowned skull symbolizing Immortality and Death's victory over all human endeavour.