La Strada: A tale trapped between earth and sky

It’s difficult to watch La Strada. What do you say about a film that has been talked about endlessly and a director who is worshipped endlessly? It’s hard to rise above the ocean of feeling pulsing through the stream in which one swims. I can’t help being a woman in 2011, aware of the masculine worship of Fellini. I can’t help being passionate about European film and grateful for its profound influence on world cinema. I have seen La Strada before, but not since I started to study film. I can’t help but notice the intense pathos it calls forth in everyone who reviews it.

La Strada is a l larger than life drama from Felini.  We have the familiar motif (used here a few times) of the man trapped between earth and sky. Felini is an Italian Catholic with a charmed upbringing and both clearly have a huge influence on this film. There is always an image of between earth and sky (sky being where our ‘higher selves’ should be – closer to god. The earth bring our baser selves – closer to the devil), the women are either Madonnas or whores, and the one purpose of the human (male) is to successfully fight off temptation. Temptation to what?  Oh, pretty much treating women like dirt. All these kinds of Catholic morality tales centre around the theme of ‘be kind to chicks’ because in the very very very long run, you may find out it was worth it. Despite this being a completely male-centred film, there is no looking deep into the clearly disturbed nature of its protagonist. No – it is assumed that it is in every man to ‘naturally’ just be horrible to women (sorry – giving into temptation) and men (all men) must overcome this.  That is, rise toward the sky.

The story is one of Gelsomina and Zampano and their unhealthy love for each other. Gelsomina is a very poor, very young girl sold by her mother to Zampano who purchased the older sister earlier and has come back because she died. We never find out how Rosa died, but he inference is here once we see how Zampano treats Gelsomina. Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is slow, bu his doesn’ stop Zampano (Anthony Quinn), who is clearly a little slow himself, from expecting her to fulfil all the duties of wife and fellow performer in his travelling one trick show. He Teaches her to play drums and trombone and do funny dances and use her extremely expressive (but not beautiful we are told many times through the film) face to win the hearts of the audience.  Gelsomina hates her life and tries to run from Zampano only to find herself incapable of self-care, being too young and too slow. When Zampano catchers her and forces her back to his home, she accepts her fate.

Then, they happen upon another circus performer – The Fool. He performs many tricks, one of which is to walk a high wire (between heaven and earth) and he captures the imagination of Gelsomina. He has a talent for annoying Zampano to breaking point, something he confesses to although he is not sure why he is so tempted to do it. He suggests to Gelsomina that Zampano loves her, and this is likely to be true. However the only act of love the Fool can see is that Zampano never killed or banished Gelsomina. From this we can tell that Zampano loves her. Gelsomina accepts this interpretation of Zampano’s behaviours, however wants to hear him confess his love. She spends the rest of the their time together trying to find ways to get him to confess his love for her, only to find her punishments all the crueller the closer she gets to his truth.

Then one day, they happen upon the Fool again on the road. Zampano wants to hit him to complete some unfinished business, and does so, beating the Fool to death. This knocks Gelsomina around emotionally so much that she descends into a madness that she can’t climb out of.  Zampano leaves her by the side of the road, to eventually die wandering around relying on the kindness of strangers. Zampano hears of her fate years later, and the closing scenes are of him weeping hopelessly for his lost love, his lost life, on the beach.

This film is a morality tale. Pure and simple. Zampano is not seen to have had his own troubled childhood from which he is running, we are never told anything of why he treats those he loves the way he does. He just is, and it is assumed that he is ‘just giving into his baser instincts’ as all men are capable of. For me, this preachiness dates La Strada. I get the magnificence, and I see the beauty, and it is true Giulietta Masina creates an unforgettable character in Gelsomina that has been parodied and used over and over, but for the most part the overt religiosity and moralising of the film left me cold. This film is made more than ten years after Freud had completed writing all his texts. At the same time,. Melville and Cocteau gave us Les Enfents Terrible. To offer us this, at this time, is to take us backward. La Strada is an act of nostaliga.  A lament for the god being rejected by man.

Felini’s trick here is to play with our emotions so that it is almost impossible to turn our backs on the Beautiful soul of Gelsomina, the intelligent wit of The Fool and the hopeless heart of Zampano. But to consider the battle for our humanity a simple wrestle in the dark with our baser selves is a simplistic notion belonging to children and church. There is more to the human condition than relinquishing the earths hold over you, and I feel a little offended these days by the simplicity of this as a suggestion. Felini, brilliant though he is, is trapped here.  Not between earth and sky, but between Mother and Father, a man refusing to see the changes in the intellectual world around him, and clinging to notions an artist of his intellect should have been abandoning like his contemporaries. Perhaps Felini was struggling to be faithful to his wife and sought to glamorize that struggle by calling on the power of heaven. Rather than embracing the notion of choice, he wants to pretend his very purpose is to live with the struggle, occasionally give in to it, go to confession and start all over.  Rather than seek a cure and moving forward, here is a man who clings hopelessly to his symptoms.

Apparently Felini fell into a deep depression after he made La Strada. This may have had something to do with the success of the film, but it doesnt’ surprise me. Prior to this moment, it had all come a little easily for him, and I’d say he wasn’t sure who he was at all. This comes out in this film, through one-dimensional characters telling us life is like a nativity scene or a Noah’s ark scenario. No wonder he then drifted off into Neo-Realism.

For all my criticisms however, the beauty of the film was not lost on me. He is still a master film maker, even if he needs a lot of therapy.