Saturday, September 28, 2013

151. Italian maestro Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” (The Road) (1954): Re-evaluating a neo-realist classic by reflecting on the movie’s screenplay

A  half century after La Strada was made and widely accepted as a world classic, the film needs to be evaluated by its content as much as by its often touted “neo-realist” style.  Interestingly, Pope Francis considers La Strada to be the film that he loves the most. Director Frederico Fellini considered this work  to be his most “representative film”, most autobiographical, and one which he had the greatest trouble “realizing” and finding a producer (p. 85 in Edward Murrays’s Ten Film Classics). Fellini also felt close to all the three principal characters in the film (p. 115 in Gilbert Salachas’ Federico Fellini).

First, it is interesting to study the three lead characters--three distinct types of idiots/fools—that Federico Fellini and his co-scriptwriters, Tulio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano, presented us. These are characters  that provide the basic, pivotal elements of the film. What made them create the three major characters? Were these characters fools or intelligent folks playing the fools? Who survives and who does not? Aren’t the three a reflection of the fool in each of us?

The fool Gelsomina--childlike innocence devoid of evil

The first fool in the film the viewer encounters is a woman, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), who is childlike and innocent, fatherless and a burden on her single mother, who in turn is struggling to feed her many children. And Gelsomina, the fool, is most eloquent when she is silent. To top it all, she is not a sexually or a physically attractive person.  She is described in the film by another thus “What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke?” She is the epitome of the innocent fool, unattractive, and yet without a trace of evil. Even the nun who befriends her sees parallels between Gelsomina and herself.

The fool Zampano--all brawn and no brains

The second fool is Zampano (Anthony Quinn), the strongman, who is a brute who uses his brawn more than his brains. Zampano does use his limited intellect to earn his daily bread (he fools his audiences that he is able to breaks chains strapped around his chest  with a physical effort  that could make his eyes pop out) but is not smart enough to be able to recognize true love or thank his benefactors who provide him shelter. He can never consider the consequences of his actions. In the film he is compared with a dog “He is like a dog.  A dog looks at you, wants to talk and only barks.” One could assume that Rosa, Gelsomina’s sister, either fled Zampano’s company or died while working for him. He believes his women can be bought either for sex or for work. He does not realize that he needs long-term companionship until it is too late. When Gelsomina suggests marriage he does not even consider it as an option. The first scene of Zampano in the film La Strada suggests a wicked, street-smart and physically overpowering man “buying” a woman. The final scene of Zampano in the film suggests just the opposite, a vulnerable and sensitive man, lonely and remorseful for his past actions, a King Lear who bemoans the loss of a loved one. Zampano’s eloquence is not verbal, his physical expressions, as Fellini captured them, in the final sequence of the film says more than all the spoken words in the film just as director Arthur Penn captured the essence of his film Night Moves (1975), visually and non-verbally with the brilliant end sequence.

The professional fool Il Matto--well-read but ignorant of his limits of foolery

The third fool is “Il matto” (The fool/The clown), a professional fool, played by Richard Baseheart . The clown is the smartest of the trio and a philosopher. He considers himself to be ignorant but he reads books. He is able to spot the latent capability of Gelsomina . But he is not smart enough to know when he has to stop playing the fool. He is the proverbial jester of a king’s court, intelligent enough to spot talent and grasp universal truths. In the most philosophically important line in the film he states “Everything is useful... This pebble for instance.” When queried as why the pebble is useful, he replies even more interestingly “If I knew, I would be the Almighty who knew all. When you are born, and when you die... Who knows? I don’t know for what this pebble is useful but it must be useful. For if it is useless, everything is useless. So are the stars.”   “Il matto,” the clown, when dying, is philosophically worried that his watch is broken, when it is his skull that is actually broken by Zampano.

Gelsomina is initially not able to play the trumpet but the filmmakers without showing her practising to play the instrument suggests, as the film progresses, that she had become close to the musical instrument (Zampano leaves that trumpet with her as she sleeps blissfully unaware that Zampano  is leaving her). What is more, we also learn later in the film that she has mastered the very musical notes that Il Matto the clown had always played on his miniature violin to make the audience laugh and cry.

Thus La Strada presents the viewer with three kinds of fools: the simpleton, the boor, and the professional clown, who pokes fun at others and at himself, sometimes to earn money, sometimes by habit. Each one of us plays the fool some time in our lives—but we need to identify for ourselves which kind and when we played each role.

Gelsomina playing on her trumpet Nino Rota's touching notes

It is interesting to study how Fellini and his two co-scriptwriters developed the story of La Strada. It is well known that Fellini loved the circus and much of the ideas of La Strada was a result of this fascination. Fellini modeled Zampano’s character partly on a real-life pig castrator, who was also a womanizer.  He had wanted to make a film on a travelling circus. But the concept of Gelsomina was the contribution of Tulio Pinelli, who had seen a tiny woman pushing a cart just as Gelsomina pushed the motorcycle driven van with a tarpaulin cover when it would need a push to start. But it was Fellini who made Gelsomina the dim-witted woman in the tale.  The melancholic irony of La Strada was possibly the contribution of Ennio Flaiano, whose literary works represent that very bent of mind. Thus, the film distills a tale picked up from real situations by three writers to forge an unforgettable story of three unusual characters on the fringes of society, a story delicately  woven to entertain  a wider audience over time, not just the Jury members at Venice Film Festival or the voting Oscar Academy members but even the current Pope.

Zampano and Gelsomina on the road

Is there religion in La Strada? The only obvious religious reference is provided by the nuns who provide Gelsomina and Zampano a place to stay overnight and Zampano rebukes their generosity by stealing from his benefactors. The nun who befriends Gelsomina comments that she views Gelsomina’s purpose in life to be much like her own life with the nuns.  “Il matto”, the clown, sees  Gelsomina’s life having a purpose just as each pebble has a purpose. These are vignettes of philosophy and theology that possibly appealed to Pope Francis who took his papal name after St Francis of Assisi. And at the end of the film, a reflective viewer realizes that the “pebble” of the film did have a purpose, which might not be so obvious to some other viewers.

Nino Rota’s contribution of music to La Strada might not stand out but the theme music first played by “Il matto” (the fool/clown) on a kit violin is the same music/notes that Zampano hears a stranger, a lady drying her laundry reproducing towards the end of the movie.  The strength of Nino Rota’s music is not just the cadence of the philosophical theme “Travelling down the lonely road” but the ability of Rota to capture the mood of the film in those few notes and Fellini’s ability to use the music sparingly and yet so strategically at the right moments in the film to underscore its vitality.

Director Ermanno Olmi, a neo-realist filmmaker of eminence, has questioned has questioned the concept of neo-realism in cinema that utilized professional actors in neo-realist cinema. In that context, where does Fellini’s La Strada stand? For this critic, actor Anthony Quinn has never been as impressive as he was in La Strada and perhaps in a little known Biblical film of director Richard Fleischer called Barrabas (1961). Richard Basehart, too,  has been an outstanding thespian in most films that he appeared in and his role in La Strada is not one that can easily be forgotten. But the real winner is Giulietta Masina, who is able to bring shades of burlesque when presenting tragic realism and slip so effortlessly into a role quite different from her real life. (It is not surprising that she chose to study for a degree in philosophy just as her husband Fellini, who graduated with a degree in philosophy and literature.} Thus, if we subscribe to Olmi’s purist definition of neo-realism Fellini’s favourite work does not fit into a neo-realist mode as La Strada is often considered to represent. Yes, the film did capture the poorer sections of Italy with some honesty, but the recreation of that reality was done by great accomplished actors.

Cineastes today might find it interesting to compare and contrast La Strada with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish film Three Monkeys (2008). Both films deal with three fools, two males and a woman. Both films have a touch of melancholic irony.  The films are separated by half a century and two religious perspectives but the end result is starkly similar. In both films, the three idiots are the losers at the end of the tale more as a result of their inherent personalities that they cannot control. They are parallel tales with totally divergent contexts. Yet both films offer much for a reflective viewer.

Fellini assesses his wife's transformation into Gelsomina

There is more to the film if we extrapolate the film to the lives of Fellini and his wife Masina. They were in love but their love life was tragic—their only child died as an infant. This apparently affected them unconsciously in their later work and lives. One can definitely assume Masina, a close associate of Fellini and his wife, would have contributed to the screenplay even though she is not officially credited with it. The two musical instruments (apart from the drum introduced briefly) shown in La Strada, were unconsciously linked to them. Masina was a daughter of a violinist mother, though she was brought up by her aunt.  It is therefore not surprising that violin should be one of the two chosen instruments.  And Fellini before his death requested that a famous trumpeter play the notes of Nino Rota from the film La Strada over his grave at his funeral. Masina died soon after the death of her husband and both are buried next to each other and their infant son. It is interesting to note how the unconscious references to one’s life or those close to one’s life creep into screenplays and to study how what the screenplay writer had developed in a screenplays affects him/her in later life. Thus, both the violin and trumpet were not just important facets of La Strada's screenplay but of the filmmakers' lives as well.

La Strada won of Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1957 and the Silver Lion at Venice Film Festival for Federico Fellini.

P.S. La Strada is one of the author’s top100 films of all time.  Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) with Giullietta Masina, and Pier Paolo Pasolini as its co-scriptwriter, has been reviewed on this blog earlier. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys (2008) has also been reviewed on this blog earlier.