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Wednesday, 12 May 2010

La Strada (1954)

Director: Federico Fellini
Stars: Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina and Richard Basehart
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

After a few years of foreign films being given special Oscars because there was no category that they could really fit into, the Academy created the Best Foreign Language Film award. The first two winners were films by Federico Fellini, one of the foundations of world cinema: La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, both starring his wife, Giuletta Masina. This also starred Anthony Quinn, who was riding high after his Best Supporting Oscar for Viva Zapata! two years earlier, and Richard Basehart, neither of whom spoke Italian and so were dubbed for the original language release. This still seems rather strange to me. I'm used to watching films with subtitles so as to get away from dubbing which to my mind is rarely more than a distraction. I want to see films as they were made. This one puts me in the strange situation of watching a great world classic in Italian in which two leading men are dubbed from English to Italian and then subtitled back to English!

I particularly appreciate the fact that the first time we see Quinn and Masina it takes a while for them to speak, leaving them the opportunity to act first. Masina plays a simple young lady called Gelsomina whose sister Rosa has died and so her weeping mother implores her to take her place working for Zampanò on the road, which is what La Strada means in English. I say 'implores', but effectively she sells her for 10,000 lire so she can have a new roof. Zampanò is Quinn, of course, a travelling strongman who snaps chains with his chest, and the contrast is huge: Gelsomina is small, quiet and cute as a button with a white face and huge eyes; while Zampanò is huge and covered in stubble, battered leather and patched clothes. He seems to be generous but initially we can't help but wonder if he's just some dirty old man in both the figurative and literal senses. His vehicle fits his image too: a beaten up three wheeler with a truck bed and hood attached.

There's a vague linear sort of plot but it's hardly important here. The pair of them hit the road (in the general sense) to make their living and they work their way along it. They go places, things happen, the road always continues on. What it's really about, though, is life itself, as personified by these characters who are magnificently defined, given a running time of less than two hours. By the time this film was over I knew more about all three of the lead characters than I did about people like Rhett or Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, which, after all, had twice as long to flesh them out. This is the sort of je ne sais quoi that really sets the masters apart from the people who just make movies. The masters don't just make movies, they create worlds out of light and sound and such films are why we have critics and film schools. Any old fool can tell that Avatar looked great but still sucked. It takes insight to see what genius there is in La Strada.

Zampanò is a tough guy, as would be expected from his job on the road, but he's also a brute in a spaghetti western type of way with his stubble and toothpick and his habit of talking through his cigarette. Anthony Quinn was always good at unkempt and he's utterly believable here as someone who rarely sees a bath or a razor but keeps himself somehow presentable. He's also a simple man, in tastes and attitudes. He takes a switch to Gelsomina's legs when she can't learn an introduction but he isn't deliberately abusive. It's just the simplest and quickest way to get his point across. Yet he doesn't really care. He has a habit of picking up woman and wandering off with them without a word. At one point he even leaves Gelsomina by the side of the road for the night while he goes off to have his fun with a buxom wench he invites over to his table and slaps on the rear, after introducing Gelsomina to those around him as his wife, even though she isn't.

What he isn't is expressive, because he can't seem to smile even when he has a happy face painted across his ugly mug. Giuletta Masina, however, is as expressive as they come, talented not just as an actress but as a mime, and she's gifted here with the part of a strange girl without all her mental faculties quite intact. She has huge eyes, which probably helps a lot. After all, it works well in anime where absolutely everyone has huge eyes, not just those without too much upstairs. She tells stories with her expressions and I had the feeling that I could easily watch her without sound, even before she appeared in white face paint to compliment Zampanò's routine. She has been described as 'the female Chaplin' and there's certainly plenty of that in the way she moves but her face is as dynamic as his was often static. What a career she could have had in the silent era, pantomiming around and dancing between comedy and tragedy like Chaplin.
I also found an easy comparison to Jean Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, not that she was simple but for the joy she found in small things. Gelsomina comes alive at the slightest moments, like wearing a new hat, banging a drum or watching rain from a window. When she finally decides that she's had enough of Zampanò's inconsiderate ways, she leaves him and finds herself following three musicians down a country road. This turns into a large religious procession in a city, probably Rome, and we're given the impression that she would be happy to be caught up in it forever. When the crowd for the procession becomes a crowd watching a tightrope walker, she becomes caught up in that as well. In fact when everyone else goes home, she stays in the town square, not just because she has nowhere to go but because she's still living the experience, walking up and down chanting to herself and anyone who cares to listen.

Of course Zampanò soon finds her and they continue on together to a small troupe of artistes, the Giraffa Circus, which also counts the tightrope walker among its number. This is Richard Basehart, playing Il Matto or The Fool, though Zampanò calls him simply the 'bastard son of a gypsy'. There's an unspoken history between the two, perhaps not only because Il Matto's act is far more versatile than Zampanò's and he just can't resist teasing him at every opportunity, something that leaves both of them in jail after the one chases the other with a knife. Perhaps it's a timeless thing that ties not only to who they are and the situations they find themselves in but to what they represent. La Strada is a painting, one that you can watch again and again and find different meaning to meet different circumstance, as all human life is here, but there is an underlying set of themes that works as at least one starting point.

Zampanò is reality and Gelsomina is fantasy and Il Matto, the Fool, is what at once binds them together and tears them apart. Maybe he's magic, maybe he's experience or maturity. He could be a change of perspective or even, if you want to get Freudian, virginity. Maybe he changes over time as reality and fantasy change over time, always something a little different whenever they reconnect with him on the road, which in its way is the most important character in the film. The road itself, not a physical street but the metaphorical road on which these people make their living and which also serves as the only real home that they know, is a metaphor for nothing less than life itself. That's the real scope of this film: to tell us about the entirety of life in an hour and forty eight minutes, a rather ambitious project and one that can't help but fail unless the audience is receptive to the attempt.

I've watched La Strada three times now and found a different experience each time. The first time through I found the middle part of the film to be stunning, dramatic and highly involving, but the beginning and the end a little slow and lacking in focus. I wondered if this was my lack of experience with Fellini's work making itself apparent, but when I revisited La Strada, I had a lot more of his films under my belt and found that it didn't really help, this being notably different both from earlier, more conventional films like The White Sheik and later, wilder flights of fancy like Satyricon or Casanova, let alone something as utterly personal as Roma. Even so I felt that I understood it better and appreciated it more. By the third time it had become something of an old friend. I found myself comfortable in its presence rather than challenged by it and I could concentrate less and absorb more of the nuances. I could let it roll over me.
The one thing I still find strange is the lack of apparent technique. Beyond an obviously artistic composition of frame, most of the usual reference points for technique are absent. It simply feels like it isn't a technically accomplished film. Perhaps the reason for that is that it doesn't have to be impeccably constructed to be a work of art and trying to compare art to science is always a dangerous thing. There's merely a loose framework around which the lead characters dance and in so doing flesh out their characters until they're old friends too. I wonder if we need them as much as they need each other. Without each other Zampanò and Gelsomina lead hollow lives. He may be a thug who doesn't have much to offer the world but he needs someone, not to do anything in particular but merely to be responsible for so as to give him a sense of worth and meaning. She wasn't grounded at all until she found a purpose in taking care of him.

It takes a lot to change Zampanò, though this story achieves that in the end. Gelsomina is in a state of constant flux and she changes most through interaction with Il Matto. She identifies with the Fool but through him finds a deeper understanding of her employer. He tells her that even a little pebble has its purpose and she realises that her purpose is to be with Zampanò. They make a very odd couple: he with the initial talent but still dark and brooding; and she initially with little to speak of, but with a naïve childlike joy in everything around her that carries the potential to blossom into anything. Over time it becomes clear that she's really as talented as Zampanò, who in the great scheme of things doesn't really have a whole heck of a lot to offer. While he restricts himself to little more than food, sleep and sex, she truly interacts with her surroundings, planting tomatoes, visiting sick children, finding kinship with a nun, learning how to be a human being.

Both are experiencing what they understand as life, but their understandings of it are utterly different. 'You have to think about these things but you never think at all,' she tells him at one point. 'There's nothing to think about,' he replies. This is an invitation on the part of Fellini for us to take a good look at our own lives and determine how much we are like Zampanò and how much like Gelsomina. He doesn't preach at us and he certainly doesn't tell us where the optimal balance can be found. None of the lead characters get it right, making this a tragedy, but one we can avoid ourselves by learning from their mistakes. The genius of the storytelling is that it's impossible to narrow those mistakes down to a single act at a single point in the movie. In its way it creates new archetypes and reference points. Dominique Aubier wrote in the influential French magazine Cahiers du cinéma that it 'belongs to the mythological class.'

Because of this it's difficult to write critically about this film. Traditional methods like analysis and comparison fail. It's difficult to deconstruct the piece because it wasn't constructed, at least not in the sort of way we're used to. We can certainly appreciate the magnificent performances of all three of the lead actors, though the dubbing of Quinn and Basehart often has much to be desired. Simply put it stands apart from a hundred and some years of cinema as a true work of art and it resonates only when you come to it with that perspective. Expect a blockbuster to be blindly entertained by and you'll get some enjoyment out of it but it won't stand out from the crowd. Expect a technical classic to be bowled over by and you'll be underwhelmed. Only if you take the time to get to know it will it show its true value and you will be more than thankful that you made the effort. It's a film to grow with and the more you put into it the more you'll get out.

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