dir. Federico Fellini
In the early morning hours, at the end of a spirited drinking party, as passed-out sophisticates snore on the couches, an old man lectures two weary writers that tragedy and comedy have the same source, and that one who truly understands their root should be able to compose both with equal felicity. Though a very Fellini-esque scene, which I could easily imagine in La Dolce Vita, it is actually from one of the great Greek directors and can be found in his mysterious screenplay The Symposium. The Greek’s wisdom is nicely illustrated by a scene in La Strada (1954), one of Federico Fellini’s early masterpieces, playing March 6th through the 10th at the Bijou. In the middle of the night, two clowns commiserate on otherwise empty bleachers. One moans in tears, “What am I here for on this earth?” The other bursts with laughter, “My God, but you’re homely!”
La Strada is about a dim-witted but spirited girl named Gelsomina (Giuletta Masina, Fellini’s wife and muse) who is sold by her mother into servitude to a performing strongman named Zampano (Anthony Quinn). Zampano is capable of bursting an iron chain with his chest; Gelsomina learns to do some rudimentary clown tricks and play the trumpet. It’s all pretty pathetic, yet somehow entertaining; I’d put my spare lire in their hat. They ramble around Italy on a ramshackle motorcycle and eventually hook up with a circus, where a tightrope-walking Fool (Richard Basehart) befriends Gelsomina and makes it his bizarre mission in life to torment Zampano. These comic characters incline toward tragedy, but the movie is ultimately about who we are beyond the masks of comedy and tragedy. The Fool seems to know all along; Gelsomina learns from the Fool; and Zampano’s moment of self-discovery is delayed, awfully, to the end. André Bazin once observed that Fellini’s characters don’t develop, they ripen. At the end of La Strada, we realize, they also rot.
Fellini movies are often described as poetic; that’s right, provided by that abused adjective we don’t simply mean “arty and boring.” They are unabashedly made things. They feel warmly human. Though I don’t know but a handful of details about Fellini the man, I feel like I share with him the intimacy of a friendship. His movies all have Giuletta Masina in them; freaks and performers inevitably march through; at some point someone is suspended in mid-air; characters drift to the sea; everyone puts on acts and airs, which tend to crumble; Nino Rota’s haunting music wafts in from the distance. Put all that together, and you somehow get the soul of Fellini—or so you end up believing. Though De Sica and Rossellini, his fellow neo-realists, in many ways have made more fully realized movies, they’re just not as lovable as Fellini’s.
Italian neo-realism, among other things, was a movement to liberate cinema from theatricality. Here is where Fellini does transcend the movement: He sees theatricality as an important part of a realism worthy of human life. On the whole, La Strada has been lavished with critical praise, but a number of critics have pronounced Giuletta Masina’s performance too theatrical, which is sublimely idiotic. True enough, hers is a very dramatic mug of knowing smiles and clownish pouts. But theatricality is at the core of the roles Fellini imagines for her. As far as Fellini is concerned, theatricality is at the center of all roles, on screen or off. There is a scene toward the beginning of La Strada where Gelsomina goes off to be by herself, right after having been sold by her mother to Zampano. When nobody is watching, she curls a big, knowing, childish grin. She’s trying out on herself the emotion of being excited at the prospects of her coming adventures. Gelsomina is putting on an act all for herself; it’s her ingenious way of coping with the trauma. Of course, we’re watching, too. Giuletta is acting for us, the popcorn-munchers of the darkness.
Everyone in a Fellini film is an actor—that is, an actor playing an actor. He adores the performers and freaks of life, in part because they contain some quintessence of heartbreaking humanity. But those who truly see that the world’s a stage also see that in the end we are more than just players. There are moments, often in solitude, when we no longer smile or frown to ourselves and face the humiliating ways we’ve played out our lives. The end of La Strada is such a moment, a devastating scene of Zampano on the seashore. As memorable as it is, I wish the movie ended on a smile (as Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria so perfectly does). Rilke once observed, “Beauty is the last veil we lay over the horrible.” No, beauty is the second-to-last veil. The last veil we put over the horror is a smile.