© 2014 by James Clark
Pasolini’s angry bid to undo not only modernist cinema but modernist culture may be an annoyance; but it’s also a golden opportunity. A special aspect of this windfall is Giulietta Masina, coming to us along those sightlines as the Antipode of the lumpen amateurs Pasolini would favor (not quite getting what Bresson was up to with that angle). Pasolini’s rather systematic but flamboyant notion of gender unwittingly shines a spotlight upon the supposed more natural and efficacious sense of integrity a quorum of female historical players possesses (to be supplemented by the coercive efficacy of the few teachable males on the planet). His sincerely longing for interpersonal decency, while happily installing mass regimes of bestial indifference, redirects our view to those of his filmmaker contemporaries who pursued their muse in resisting being sideswiped by traditional rationalism, including Italian neorealism. As such our examination of the case of Pasolini’s film output—a probe looking for signs of the wherewithal to counter being mired in half-measures—takes on a very welcome complement, namely, the films of Federico Fellini, which bring us to his muse and wife, Giulietta Masina.
Fellini’s rejoinder to neorealist desperation about sanitizing an erratic tide of history reaches an especially acute figuration in his early masterpiece, La Strada (The Road, 1954). There are many bravura ingredients going into this ascent to the heights of the hard climb that was Italian post-War cinema; but the two that really grab me are the writing and the performance. Fellini (assisted by Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano) carefully works out a protagonistic range that circumvents the suffocating inertia of ghetto experience, in a land left by its recent (and not so recent) history to regard immobility, and its compromised vision, as a basic element. (In Arabian Nights, we have an instance of mobile ghettoization, in the form of a nomadic tribe, its leadership proving to have nothing better to do than surreptitiously observe and make bets on the lovemaking of a pair of adolescent foundlings.) We follow the nomadic misadventures of a “strongman,” Zampano, and his assistant, Gelsomina, as they stage, again and again, the same busker scene for passers-by at village squares. Not only, then, are they untrammelled by local routines, including feuds; but the thrust of launching a spectacle catches them up in pressing for what touches the hearts and purse strings of entities drawn out of their regular absorptions. (We have to notice, though, as the narrative spins along roadways and rural landscapes startlingly spare and raw, their boundaries awash in luminescent ranges given devoted attention by the black and white cinematography of Otello Montelli, that Zampano’s performances seldom depart from a very limited progression and climax, and he does have a feud going with another itinerant street performer.)
Into a screenplay bound to render neoclassical stalwarts apoplectic about its refusal to maintain that the poor have nowhere to turn but to pray for and cheer on a rescue party, Fellini instigates sensibilities enacting, not merely a process of eating up mileage and catching many eyes, but striking forward into a kinetic territory of love the tellingness of which comes rather magically into view amidst the stationary general population. Having sketched out the rather abstruse circumstances of welcoming Fellini (and especially his La Strada) into these proceedings, we can now let that centre of magic come directly into its own. And what more apt moment to lead off with than that episode following their first gig which culminates in Zampano’s driving off with a buxom local woman he calls “Rosa” (the name of Gelsomina’s sister, now dead, but her predecessor as the strongman’s assistant; also “Red,” the only Red he cares about) and being told by a tearful Gelsomina, next morning, “You’re one of those men who runs around with women…” They come to a wedding reception just off the highway on the battered grounds of an extended family farm and they’re dipping into their B-game, she doing a little cake walk, spreading out a cane and, with her floppy jacket, far more a dwarfish Harpo Marx than a Charlie Chaplin (more compatible, than the A-game’s scarifying snapping of a steel chain by expanding one’s chest, with a long table having a blast in staging a food fight). We see that the recent hireling (rounded up by him at the same desperate homestead by the sea, with a mother considering herself lucky to be able to sell her daughters, one by one, for 10,000 lire a pop) is a comedian and dancer of natural genius. (Giulietta Masina gives us the arresting paradox of irresistible expressivity in her facial presences and tiny body while seeming entirely amateurish and impromptu.) This eloquence of body language conveys her joyous love of forging ahead with her life far more coherently and powerfully than any articulation in words she might attempt. They’re welcomed into the reception, Zampano sitting in the doorway having his dinner with a widow whose sexual priorities are both coarse and, as (surprisingly) evoked by her stuffing her mouth with the feast and the candid set of her eyes and bodily presence, touching. “I always eat on my feet. I’ve had two husbands. Both died. I could dance all night. Us older women are better than young girls. Everyone likes sweets after a good meal…My first husband was big… There aren’t many men built like you…” The children unsurprisingly take a liking to Gelsomina (in clown makeup), and they spirit her away to observe the family curiosity, a bedridden retarded boy. The children bring her to the bedside with a mixture of embarrassment and pride; and she, after an initial attempt to make him laugh, becomes still in face of his mishap and in face of a dangerous fragility she has clearly pondered at great length. Then his mother comes in and shoos them away. The free-lance clown goes on to attempt to interrupt the avatars of largeness, needing to tell him how she feels about what has just happened. But again she’s shooed away.
After an incident in which she has the opportunity to display in action her loyalty to Zampano, they stop at a convent, seeking a more sheltered place to sleep than the ramshackle trailer of their motorcycle-driven, less than glamorous but still compelling, tour. Alertly taking into account the aptness of tempering a general obviation of the horrors of ghetto smallness, we are given what would seem to be the acme of a stultified backwater which nevertheless radiates love at a level promising boundless innovation. As with the children at the wedding party, a very young nun intuits the exceptional heart of the distaff side of the act and generously provides food (“Have some more…”) and arranges, with the Mother Superior, for them to sleep in the barn that night. “Show the Sister how you play the trumpet,” Zampano urges. And, after hearing a few bars of the sweet, melancholy motif, the young girl tells Gelsomina, “Beautiful! What’s the name of the song?” Her new friend, so well embraced by composer, Nino Rota’s, invention, replies, “I don’t know but I love it!” In an effort to seem a soul mate in moving around a lot, the girl informs her, “We transfer to another convent after two years, so we don’t get attached to things of the world. You grow fond of where you live… even a plant…” That night, her enthusing about this stopover causes Zampano to call her a “potato head.” “It’s nice here,” she counters. And then, perhaps moved by their charade of being married, for the consumption of their hosts, she goes on to ask him, “Would you be sorry if I died? Now I’d even be willing to marry you.” He, as we have been aware right from his engaging her as a slave, has a very differently calibrated heart from hers; and his assimilation of her desire to live a life of rich and gentle love comes in the form of, “Enough of this nonsense! Go to sleep!” She can’t let go, and continues, “Do you like me a little?” And she turns to her trumpet and its harboring a world of loving wisdom. His growling, “Knock it off!” finally accomplishes her being squelched. She wakes up in the middle of the night to find him attempting to loot the convent. He forces her to procure silverware in a place which his big hands can’t reach; and next morning, at their departure, she can’t face her new friend. (Giving the rig a push, she does look over and gives her host a plucky twinkle of the eye and readiness of the chin.) But, from the back of the canvas, tent-like caravan, as Zampano guns his ugly but durable bike, she waves vigorously to the young girl—a treasure slipping away from her life. Their faces are alight with the inexpressible momentousness of this modest encounter. Gelsomina smiles through tears, with a transcendent passion, she buries her head in the bedding, still waving her white handkerchief.
Soon they encounter his long-standing enemy, stranded with a flat, who had recently ruined his chances of joining a big circus, and Zampano kills him with his bare hands, sending her into depression, bringing about the end of their partnership, her death and his terrible awakening. Over and above that chain of events, we have the masterful complement of this film’s dramatic endowment of the almost incredibly harsh demands of freedom and its loving impetus.
As we’ve more than alluded to thus far, the partnership of Zampano and Gelsomina is a tortuous work in progress. But make no mistake; La Strada goes to great lengths in revealing that its action is all about progress—all about dashing illusions and being introduced to a basic state of affairs testing us to the limit. On being left alone the night of the wedding, while he accompanies the widow (who presents him with her “big” former husband’s wardrobe), she tells him in the morning, “I like the work, being an artist. It’s you I don’t like. I’m leaving.” We can certainly confirm that she likes being a performing artist—and a constantly travelling one, at that. On being fetched, by her younger siblings, from gathering firewood along a beach, and presented with the prospect of joining scruffy Zampano having effectively killed her sister, she registers some anxiety and sadness, but far more a wide-eyed plunge into a windfall. Her mother’s mawkish howling adjacent to her sell-off, doesn’t deter the gusto with which the runaway plunges into that quintessentially badass vehicle. There is, at this juncture, the saliency of the need to avoid over-indulgence in psychological pigeonholing, with regard to Gelsomina’s apparent retardation. Unworldly, yes. Unguarded, yes. A sprite, yes. But it would, I think, be closer to the mark to say she’s come to cherish a navigational route few of those around her can comprehend.
One figure who does meet her halfway is someone she encounters soon after leaving the biker at the scene of the wedding. She comes to a town where a religious procession moves triumphantly through the streets, and then she finds a secular offshoot of the big day. High above the square, a tight-rope walker with abbreviated angel wings remarkably sets up a dining table and his attractive and poised female assistant, referring to him as “Fool” (a dramatic trope entailing remarkable perception), asks, “You’re not even going to invite us to join you?” (an impasse that will soon vitally include Gelsomina). “They’re welcome to come up,” he states with irony. Gelsomina, for one, seems very ready to take him up on the offer. At the completion of the skit, a heart-stopping “near-fall,” she claps vigorously for his wit and deftness; and he comes close to her as he gets into the car he uses for touring. They are eye-to-eye and he gives her a smile and then laughs, part cheeky, part congenial, at her awkwardness and big, innocent eyes. She gets drunk and gets rounded up by the showman on a far less graceful point of the spectrum. (The latter, in fact, on her refusal to get into the primitive tour bus, beats her and forces her in, reminding us of how he hit her with a switch on their first awkward rehearsal, and how she drew back like a bewildered pet.) When she awakens, they are in Rome at the site of a circus tent, and there they both become involved with the Fool, responding to him in vastly different ways.
One of Zampano’s comedy skits has had to do with a pop-gun rifle, and, on spotting him, the more lofty competitor (also seeking a more corporate venue) says, “It’s Trifle!” That greeting, we soon find, goes far beyond disparaging his showmanship, for the nemesis will soon declare, “What an animal! I can’t help teasing him!” So it is that (following the Fool’s successful debut) Zampano’s shot for more stability and liquidity is made a shambles of by the interruption and mockery of his adversary. Zampano had for years assumed that his strong suit was his brawny chest, popping those chains by expanding his lungs. This was not merely a (truth to tell, modest) stunt but an almost daily recourse to the reservoir, the heart, of his energies. He would mutter, before breaking the chain, “Anybody with a weak heart better not look…” That pretense of terrifying power had become, for the far more sophisticated aerialist, an insufferable blot upon the more subtle sense of integrity and strength he could discern. “A circus needs animals!” On being not only professionally compromised but embarrassingly insulted before a large urban audience, Zampano goes berserk, chasing the Fool around the circus compound and ultimately grabbing a knife and being restrained and arrested by the police.
The circus boss tells a distraught Gelsomina, “You’re better off without him.” And it is the new man in her life, namely, the Fool, who seems to make that a self-evident point. During the skirmish (stretching, with lulls, over the evening and the next morning) after the messed-up display of “superhuman strength” pertaining to “this here chain”—the breaking point being the Fool’s yelling out, at the big scene, “Scusi, telephone call for you…”—Gelsomina asks Zampano, “What has he got against you?” And the victim exclaims, “I don’t know!” (the war of worlds being far from transparent). But the underlying energies of the clash are ignited, for the dancer, musician, actress and prisoner, at the outset of their Big Top misadventure. She hears a (miniature) violin version of the “sad song’ that she loves so much and has now been able to perform tolerably, and she traces the touching music to the Fool. She is enchanted by this dash of rightness amidst so much wrongness; but Zampano angrily calls her away from that force so destructive and hateful to him. The Fool, being clearly the lesser public danger, is released from custody first, and he runs by her the notion of her joining his act (before the interruption by her overseer, he had induced her to go over a musical number with him). She hesitates, he realizes how much she cares for the lunk and he listens as she laments his crass indifference. It is at this moment that their direct chemistry—centered upon that tune and their delight in each other’s lightness, grace and affection—becomes an explicitly reflective experience and sureness of procedure falters. (He had, before his sabotage of the strong-man act, joked to her, “Don’t worry. It’s bound to be a disaster.” That glib, self-satisfied overdrive now comes to cover the murderous pitfalls nature presents, as especially enacted by the two sweethearts finally afforded an uninterrupted tete-a-tete.)
The Fool had asked her, at the outset of this pivotal moment, about his chances of staying on with the circus and its corporate advantages. On hearing from Gelsomina that the boss wants no more to do with either of such unpredictable talents, he reacts to the effect he doesn’t need it and is far better off a sublimely conspicuous one-man-show. But when she goes on to pout—“It doesn’t matter what I do [i.e., stay with the circus, stay with the Fool or stay with Zampano]… I’m no use to anybody… Why was I born?”—he attempts to be selflessly positive and things get out of hand. He had remarked to her that though he was stupid he had “read a book or two;” and the ensuant theorizing proves to be a double-edged sword. “He beats you like a donkey, but why didn’t he let you go [for more than a few hours, within which the circus angle may have surfaced]? Maybe he likes you… If you don’t stay with him, who will? Everything in the world has a purpose. Look at this little stone. I don’t know what a pebble’s purpose is. But it must have one. If a pebble has no purpose, then nothing does. And you have a purpose too…” This course of reflection entails a conceptual content fuelled by the physical positivity of their delighting in each other. The wild card of “purpose” to which both of them attain intuitively and which, given more alertness, would point to a partnership between them here, becomes overtaken by gestures of self-serving assertiveness (“You can do anything…”)—to wit, his reckless generosity, as informed by a vision of himself as a lone wolf (or eagle) doomed to die young (“I’m the one who’s going to die young” [a conflation, in that claim, between his dangerous occupation and his dangerous vocation]; he also can’t resist needling her: “What a funny face you have. You don’t look like a human. You’re an artichoke!”; “You like to make love?; “You really are an ugly one…”; and, finally, her vision of being the lover of a melodramatically challenging “super-human,” and going on to a life (in sharp contrast to what she had known at home) of grandeur and artistic beauty. Therefore, Gelsomina comes to the perilous inference, “If I don’t stay with him, who will?”
The Fool offers to drive her over to the jail in Zampano’s wreck (“What a piece of junk!”), where she can begin a life of recharged purpose. And here, with their farewell, their body language (their true selves) stages a recovery and lifts an already dazzling study of the timbres of innovative sensibility to unforgettable poignancy—pathos utterly devoid of bathos. He rattles off the cliché, on assimilating his blowing his chance to climb up the careerist stairway to the stars, “I’ll break my neck and no one will remember me…” But, on reaching the jail, in a treeless, sterile new development, he asks her once again about joining his tour, and immediately cuts off that gambit by declaring, “I don’t need an assistant…” He then places a necklace around her neck—“A souvenir for you”—and with a warm smile he waves good-bye, “Ciao.” She takes up this late traction with her own radiant smile, and one of those incisive little grabbing waves we’ve seen her attain to in saying good-bye to her family and in greeting the invalid boy. He waves from a distance and then turns away. The “purpose” of inert matter had been conjured directly by this disinterested interplay. But the harmonics implicit in that epiphany had been abandoned.
The title, La Strada, brings to us the factor of a “road” and its rigors almost overwhelming its joys. Fellini’s film, we may come to realize, for all its exquisitely gentle charms, is mountainously harsh. Zampano’s hype, about the heart-attack-inducing shock of his piddling stunt, marks him for precisely special treatment within the purview of this action. The Fool had bridled, in an inchoate way, to that emergency. “Imagine his face when he finds everyone gone. I can’t help myself. I swear, I don’t know [why I have to attack him]. I just have an urge…” Coming back to the purpose of the stone, over and above its constituting the sensual weight of vibrant motion, it constitutes physical leeway for countering the instance of primordial evil of which Zampano is an incarnation. (The caravan, occasionally shown with its canvas flapping, is more a bat out of hell than a motor vehicle. She had asked him, “Your accent is strange. Where are you from?” And he replied, “My father’s house…” It seems that, to Fellini, evil is not essentially a horrific magnitude of malignancy, but instead dull crudity.)
So they hit the road, after his brief sentence for petty crime, they loot the convent (a passage which includes Gelsomina’s not taking up the sweet little nun’s offering to help her join their order), they come upon the Fool and Zampano kills him. The denouement concerns Gelsomina’s having thus been consumed by the shattering wrongness of her navigations. She won’t eat, can’t perform convincingly in the show, won’t allow him to sleep in the trailer with her, and continually mutters, “The Fool is hurt…” (She had embarked on this winter-ravaged ride by declaring, “Now I feel my life is with you.” And he had sneered, “That’s because you were starving at home!”) On a sunny day, they come to the brickwork shell of a long-abandoned homestead and that lifts her spirits somewhat. She actually eats the soup he prepares there, takes simple delight in her coat and her hair, says, “It’s nice here;” but she soon subsides into lamenting the murder. “You killed him… I wanted to run away but he said stay.” She falls asleep and Zampano hits the road, leaving with her extra blankets and the trumpet by which she reached for something right.
Years later he’s part of another circus troupe, he’s better dressed, but still sullen. Hearing a woman singing that “sad song,” he discovers that Gelsomina had made her way to that town, while clinging to the melody, been treated with another instance of a wellspring of generosity and affection, but had died, locked away in her song and her mourning and her sense of utter failure. Zampano stumbles through a “not for faint hearts” performance, gets violently drunk that night, gets thrown out of the bar and gets kicked around by the bouncers, one of whom remarks, “Some strongman!” (to which he replies, “I don’t need anybody! I’ll crush you like bugs!”); and he comes to the seashore, looks into the dark sky and then falls upon the sand, cries, and, finally, lies there face down. The achingly arresting performance of this moment (and all the preceding moments of the whole movie) by Anthony Quinn, evokes the devastating remoteness of interpersonal integrity. And, moreover—here Fellini entering upon reflective precincts astronomically remote from those of Pasolini and the catalysts of neorealism—precisely at this moment when Zampano seems to have attained to something in common with human promise, there is dismissal of his loutishness (quintessentially too little , too late) a driving over this saga like a truck squashing a bug.
Fellini and his cinematographer have given us as grotty and deadened a series of post-War, money-strapped country roads as anyone could have devised (all the while using lighting skills and filters to bequeath this network, which even the dogs have steered clear of, with a virtually unnoticeable silvery resonance). There is one remarkable exception to this leaving for dead and buried the cliché that getting there is the best part of the trip. Soon after she turns her back on Zampano at the site of the wedding, she’s on a road bounded by farms; the countryside remarkably does not look as if it has been saturation-bombed, the ditches are filled with deliciously textured grasses and shrubs, the pavement glistens as sunlight plays on the deposit of a recent rain; and she (who had planted tomato seeds at the very first stopover, involving a Rosa, and been chastised by him, “What have you got in your head?”) , coming to rest at the roadside, delights in surveying a mouse hole in a ridge of sandy soil. Here the possibility of striking forth alone, having (momentarily) transcended a toxic entanglement, is conveyed by that atmosphere as somehow mysteriously detached from the auspices of distemper and desperation. Then a three-man-band comes by, headed for the town and procession where she first sees the Fool; and she follows them, dancing to their song. La Strada allows us to try to assimilate a task of bringing coherence to such a startling range of energy.