Wednesday, February 4, 2009

La Strada

Dir. Federico Fellini

Ever since I saw my first Federico Fellini film I've liked to think of his pictures as circuses. They are huge, absurd and wonderfully entertaining, but beneath their surface exterior of shimmer and paint there is always something a little more sinister; something more melancholy; and something always much harder to grasp. In La Strada Fellini takes this generalized metaphor and transforms it into a highly literal translation. The film is all about the lives of circus performers. Had any other director been behind it the film would have likely been a straightforward, slap-stick field day of a film. With Fellini, however, nothing is ever straightforward. La Strada is a grand tragedy that parades with all the oom-pah-pah of a farce. It is an existential comedy of errors, only these errors lead not to knee-slaps and guffaws but to death and suffering. With his coy understanding of the human spirit Fellini conjures up another roaming masterpiece of cinema that exposes all the sorrow and sacrifice put aside in the name of comedic entertainment.

The film stars Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina, as the adorable Gelsomina, the sad clown of La Strada. She is a Chaplin-esque performer whose simplistic understanding of the world ends up being decimated by her experiences with cruelty, malice and death. This disenthralled release from the innocuousness of her childhood becomes the focus of the narrative. She is sold to street performer Zampano (Anthony Quinn), who is a barbarous and immoral man. Throughout the film there are numerous references to Gelsomina being more like a faithful dog that Zampano can teach tricks to than the wife he claims her to be. Zampano frequently abandons Gelsomina but it is that same fidelity that keeps her from leaving him. With Gelsomina, Fellini draws a beautiful sketch of a girl not fit for this world: too naïve to understand the instability of the poor people she lives amongst and the painful depths of her own torturous existence, while simultaneously all too good at faking an enthusiastic happiness that is intoxicating to those around her. Her on screen heart break is unbearable. Children are meant to be introduced to life's struggles slowly and under the protective gaze of their parents and loved ones. Gelsomina, who is all but a child in the film, is introduced to tragedy first hand with only a mocking slave driver of a man as company. At times she is paraded about, other times she is hungry but through the unbelievable resilience inherent in all children, she survives until the moment when she is finally piteously abandoned for good by Zampano, who we come to realize cannot cope with his feelings for her any longer. If La Strada is meant to be a film about the deceiving nature of appearances, especially by those who make a living doing so, then Fellini's ultimate revelation of Zampano's own grief at leaving behind a child whose innocence tortured him because of his heavily repressed desire to be good and not evil, is certainly the definitive climax of the film.

Fellini, like the Italian Neo-Realists who came before him, acquaints his viewers with a dramatically different view of Italy than the stereotypical images of graceful dancers and artistic beauty that have infiltrated the non-European mind. His Italy is raw and stark; flashy but altogether artificial; absurd to the point of being melodramatic. It is a world unto itself that real people do not think about, much less exist in. Comparatively his characters are much the same, but what grounds Fellini's films, especially this one, is the theory that if you change both the nature of your characters, say from realistic to being tantamount to a synthetic idea or concept, and their environments then nothing has really changed at all, only moved. Like changing water from a clear glass to a colored one: it may look awfully different but there is still only water in the glass. Fellini's grandeur extends from this understanding and his construction of meaning in and through this model of film making. He has not necessarily created a new message, only an unparalleled and highly particular way of communicating.

Fellini's films do have a habit of being terribly esoteric. They incorporate a great number of significant ideas and issues and present them in ways that are often baffling to those unaccustomed to his style of delivery. Still, from the chaos of his films comes a sublime understanding of the world's madness. While drummed up to prove a point, his films are generally meant to divulge, in their absurdity, how truly absurd the world can be. La Strada is no different in that respect. Fellini uses the medium of circus performance, a tongue-and-cheek 'art form', to put on a vivid display of the sad and crazy lives of ordinary people. Here is a man doing his best to fulfill the macho role his culture demands of him, betraying his inner anxiety about being appreciated and maybe even liked, and a young girl capable of only two emotions, both of which are unquestionably sincere, whose world expands too quickly and to a fatalistic end (the film begins with the news of her sister's death and ends with Zampano receiving the news of her's). They come together for a brief time and then are separated forever. Just shy of two hours La Strada encapsulates a lifetime of confusion, suffering and repentance that is no mock-up of reality: it is reality.

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