Travelling Down Roads with Fellini's 'La Strada'

 


Out of Italy came two ladies whose smiles riddled the world, blending joy with sorrow, and defining bittersweetness with the curl of a lip: one was Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and the second is Giulietta Masina, an incredible actress who played the role of Gelsomina in La Strada with the potency and facial expressions of a silent movie star, a performance deeply rooted in theatrical traditions with a childlike quality and sense of wonder that is unmatched on the silver screen. Federico Fellini, while envisioning the story, based it all on his wife Giulietta and photographs from her childhood, and crafted a film, a story and a character that not only defined her career, but radically altered his; La Strada is the point where Fellini became Fellini. Moving away from his neorealist roots, this film saw the legendary director sort of laying the foundation of the surrealist and fantastical worlds that he’ll be diving into later in his career, so La Strada is a bit of a mix of both “extremes”, a film that is based on the harsh realities of post-war Italy, but one that comes to terms with it through innocent imagination and dreamy overtones, a film stuck between the earth and the skies.

La Strada’s story is about two characters: Zampano, who is a travelling circus performer, and whose assistant, Rosa, had died, and Gelsomina, Rosa’s sister, who is bought off her poor mother to replace her sister and travel around with him as he goes from town to town, doing his act. Zampano, a towering figure of a man with a personality as rough as his looks, earns a living by doing an act where he ties an iron chain around him and breaks it simply by expanding his chest, and Gelsomina’s job is to introduce him to audiences and pass around the hat collecting tips. Her willingness to learn and please, and enjoyment of travelling around Italy are challenged by his brutal and cruel nature, something that is constantly complicated as the story progresses.

When the subject of great cinematic collaborations is brought up, Ingmar Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist are always among the first in the conversation, but I feel that Fellini, or any other great director really, couldn’t have done all the incredible work they did without the comfort of working with a certain set of people, and in Fellini’s case, cinematographer Otello Martelli and composer Nino Rota gave him the freedom to realize his visions with the utmost ease. Martelli, a veteran of the Italian film industry, had worked on many celebrated films before, including Paisan (1946), Bitter Rice (1949) and I Vitelloni (1953), and his work in La Strada is quite literally bewitching. The camera in the film feels alive, as intrusive and curious as Gelsomina; Fellini, like a painter with his favorite brushes, had a few elements that he always found a way to integrate into all of his pictures: a circus, the sea side, nocturnal city walks...and in La Strada, these elements are brought to life in what feels like the enquiring innocent eye of a child, whether the camera is capturing the magic of going to the circus for the first time, or moving sneakily to visit a bed-ridden kid, it always feels exciting, every frame is an adventure.

While in Old Hollywood, the film industry was almost obsessed with perfectly matching sound to lip movements, Italy was more deliberate, so much so that Fellini many times told his actors to simply count numbers, knowing that the sound will be dubbed later, which allowed him to give instant feedback and direction, shouting stuff like, “Go back to 13, you need to look sadder when you say it!” What could be called technical imperfection today had a magical effect: sound almost becomes an entity in the film, floating around the characters as opposed to coming out of them. If that is half the magic of the sound of old Italian films, then the other half is the score, and what better example than the work of Nino Rota. A frequent collaborator with Fellini, and the man behind some of cinema’s most memorable music, his work in La Strada is amazing. A wistful, bittersweet tune meets us at every key moment in the film, and no matter if the scene is happy, sad, or anything in between, it fits perfectly, a few notes that somehow manage to convey all the mixed emotions of being.

La Strada is the story of innocence clashing with the real world, a moral tale that transcends morality, all three key characters in the film do good things, do bad things, hurt others and learn, but no one is judged or portrayed as hero or villain; it is not a metaphor of life, it is life, brutal and unflinching, but not completely stripped of any magic or purity. It is a coming-of-age story that ends much too soon for the protagonist and forever resonates with the audience, Gelsomina does not warn against naïve innocence, despite her tragic fate, she embraces it wholeheartedly in the midst of all the cruelty. Giulietta Masina captures the essence of the character in one of the greatest performances in film history, her face and her starry eyes are a canvas where life paints itself.

Bob Dylan credits La Strada as one of the biggest inspirations for his song Mr. Tambourine Man, where he beautifully captures the essence of it, and he says, “If you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme to your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind, I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.”  

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