Fellini’s La Strada

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This month’s very well attended Screen St Ives presentation was Fellini’s La Strada. The average audience rating for the film was a very reasonable 4 out of 5.

There was a particularly interesting post-film discussion reflecting a range of reactions to the movie. Some of the observations emerging from that discussion are reflected in the following online material.

There is a useful short biography of director Federico Fellini on the MUBI site. Of particular relevance to La Strada:-

…at the age of 12 he briefly ran away from home to join the circus.

The circus is a strong motif not only in La Strada but in a number of other Fellini films.

A major influence on Fellini was the Italian neorealist movement:-

The pivotal moment in Fellini’s early career came in the days following the Allied Forces’ 1945 liberation of Italy, when he and Fabrizi both began working with Roberto Rossellini, a young, largely unknown filmmaker with only a handful of directorial credits under his belt. Rossellini’s initial plan was to film a fictionalized account of the Germans’ shooting of a local priest. With Fellini on board as a screenwriter, however, the film eventually grew to become Roma, Città Aperta, a landmark of Italian neorealism and one of the most widely acclaimed pictures of its era.

La Strada marks a period when Fellini moves away from these neorealist routes to a very different style. As Chris Wiegand says in Frederico Fellini: The Complete Films:-

A trio of films directed in the mid-1950s saw Fellini transcend his neorealist origins. La Strada, Il Bidone and The Nights of Cabiria, often grouped together as the ‘films of redemption’, display the director’s move from neorialism to a kind of fantastical individualism. Heavily symbolic tales of innocence betrayed, they feature marginal characters searching in unusual places for spiritual salvation.

Bob Kalin’s blog post on La Strada begins with a similar observation:-

…it was Fellini’s La Strada, built upon a firm Neo-Realist foundation yet possessing something more—a fairy-tale-like narrative, resonant with archetypal characters whose lives illuminate the basic truths of the human condition—that revealed the full aesthetic richness of Neo-Realism just as it was being transformed by Fellini into something other than a faithful recording of mundane reality. It is this sometimes whimsical, sometimes hallucinatory visual and narrative quality in Fellini’s work that distinguished him from his fellow Neo-Realists and which, even more significantly, pointed the way to future styles and directions in world cinema.

He goes on to say:-

La Strada possesses a fable-like simplicity that conceals the film’s seemingly unplanned, episodic structure. As a filmmaker who came of age during the flowering of Italian Neo-Realism, Fellini has an unerring instinct in La Strada for creating an often harshly realistic portrayal of post-war Italian society. Certainly the film’s attention to lower class and socially marginalized characters reflects the politics of Neo-Realism and its goal of developing the cinema as a tool for representing and analyzing the experiences of average, ordinary people, an impulse that arises from Neo-Realism’s roots in Italian Marxism. Evidence of pervasive poverty and the scarring effects of war are brilliantly incorporated into the mise-en-scene of the film through Fellini’s art direction and costume design. His use of actual locations in La Strada, rather than the more easily controlled environment of the film studio, and his use of untrained actors in several minor roles, likewise followed basic Neo-Realist aesthetic principles that aimed at presenting a more authentically realistic image of the world.

But Fellini was always something more than a realist. Every Fellini film possesses a certain ineffable poetry, a sense of magic and wonder that can range from the hilarious to the frightening to the uncanny. He is what I would call, mixing literary and cinematic modes, a “magic neo-realist.” In Fellini’s films we … encounter a highly subjective view of the world, often grotesque and distorted, brimming with both irony and pathos and filtered through Fellini’s profoundly humanistic vision as an artist.

Jamie Russell in his BBCi review, talks about the performances in La Strada:-

Quinn [as Zampano] is stunning as the savage strongman – a drunken, whoring, violent thug – and manages to keep him from becoming a one-dimensional symbol of oppression by imbuing him with a twisted humanity all his own.

But it’s Masina’s film [who plays Gelsomina]. Her Chaplinesque clowning, wide-eyed wonder and desperate attempts to please are full of tragi-comic pathos.

Roger Ebert in his review:-

Seeing the film again after several years, I found myself struck first of all by new ideas about the Fool. The film intends us to take him as a free and cheerful spirit (the embodiment of Mind, Pauline Kael tells us, with Zampano as Body and Gelsomina as Soul).

But he has a mean, sarcastic streak I had not really registered before, and his taunting of the dim Zampano is sadistic. To some degree he is responsible for his own end.

Masina’s character is perfectly suited to her round clown’s face and wide, innocent eyes. Her performance is inspired by the silent clowns, and is probably a shade too conscious and knowing to be consistent with Gelsomina’s retardation. The character should never be aware of the effect she has, but we sometimes feel Gelsomina’s innocence is calculated.

It is Quinn’s performance that holds up best, because it is the simplest. Zampano is not much more intelligent than Gelsomina.

Life has made him a brute and an outcast, with one dumb trick (breaking a chain by expanding his chest muscles), and a memorized line of patter that was perhaps supplied to him by a circus owner years before. His tragedy is that he loves Gelsomina and does not know it, and that is the central tragedy for many of Fellini’s characters: They are always turning away from the warmth and safety of those who understand them, to seek restlessly in the barren world.

La Strada has received much critical acclaim. Here’s Russell again:-

La Strada has always had a special place in Fellini’s canon, not least because it was the film that won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and secured his reputation as one of Europe’s leading postwar directors.

Touching, funny, and completely enchanting, “La Strada” is a deceptively simple film – a haunting, lyrical masterpiece that will remain with you long after the credits have disappeared.

The film is certainly not without its detractors, though. This rather scathing, pithy review by David Kehr in the Chicago Reader rather amuses me:-

Early mush from the master, Federico Fellini. The story—about a circus strong man (Anthony Quinn) and the doe-eyed waif who loves him—is an allegory, so you can leave as soon as you figure it out. It won’t take very long.

Geoff Andrew writing in Time Out acknowledges a possible tendency for sentimentality but sees La Strada as an important film:-

For all its sentimentality, this overshadows virtually everything Fellini has made since La Dolce Vita. As ever for il maestro, life is both cyclic odyssey and circus, a teeming, tragicomic arena of pain, cruelty and solitude.

Despite the pessimism of much of the story, memorably embodied in the grey, desolate towns the pair visit, Fellini has already moved far from his roots in neo-realism; symbols, metaphors, and larger-than-life performances hold sway, and moments of bizarre if inconsequential charm abound.

To wrap things up, though, I rather like this comment from Ebert about Fellini:-

When Fellini died, the critic Stanley Kauffmann wrote an appreciation in The New Republic that ended with the words: “During his lifetime, many fine filmmakers blessed us with their art, but he was the only one who made us feel that each of his films, whatever its merits, was a present from a friend.”

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