FilmStruck, the streaming service from Criterion and Turner Classic Movies, features a beautiful restoration of La Strada that I watched this afternoon at two different Starbucks locations, first in Coral Gables before I had to go to lunch with my dad and then the second half at a Starbucks in the Grove, and I drank two double espressos while watching it, took laborious notes, and studied almost the whole thing while squinting, straining, trying to throw my brainpower into overdrive because on top of knowing that Federico Fellini is regarded as a filmmaker among the same ranks as Jean Renoir (who’s appeared on the List with A Day in the Country and Boudu Saved from Drowning and Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game and Golden Coach), or Ingmar Bregman (Summer with Monika) or Roberto Rossellini (Rome Open City and Paisan and Journey to Italy), I also knew that this flick in particular is held as a one of, like, the cinema supergreats. A work of perfection and a catalyst for a generation of filmmakers.
And it’s as gorgeous as you might expect, with most of its beauty taken not from the photography or the music or the story but by the face of Giuletta Masina, a young woman in a traveling circus act, whose face is probably the most beautifully expressive face on the List to date. Martin Scorsese says in a little feature appended to FilmStruck’s presentation of the film that Masina’s performance was clearly influenced by Chaplin, which is true, but I think there’s a lot of Harpo Marx here too. Not just the short haircut (Harpo’s a redhead but, in black and white, they both look blonde) but also the fact that she speaks mostly in monosyllables, when she speaks at all. The movie’s also profoundly human and emotional and touching, but I don’t think it’s particularly philosophical or cerebral. Like Citizen Kane, or Gone with the Wind, its legacy kinda scared me into thinking I needed to be looking for something that’d be going over my head.
But no. It’s a totally accessible movie. It’s also the kinda movie that you can watch with a voice in the back of your head talking about everything “problematic” about it. Giuletta’s character is abused by a guy named Zampano (Anthony Quinn). Her sister Rose worked for him in the past but now Rose is dead and so he shows up at the family home, where Gelsomina (Masina) lives with her mother and younger siblings in abject poverty. Her mother insists that Gelsomina go replace Rose in Zampano’s traveling circus act. Scorsese says in that little featurette that Zampano buys Gelsomina, and I can see how it might come off that way since he’s giving her mother money and gifts so that the mother will thrust Gelsomina onto him, but it seems more like the parent giving her away than like Zampano buying her. In fact he seems to suggest a couple of times that he’d be fine if Gelsomina chose to abandon him on the eponymous strada, the road, and go back home. She only stays with him because she loves him. It’s an unrequited love, and it’s the leash that keeps her subject to his abuse.
In fact, if I was to get heady about anything in the movie, it’d be about that love – which is definitely one of the movie’s focal points, is the fact that she’s so crazy about this guy even though he gives her no reason to like him but for the fact that he’s charismatic, a good performer who practices none of that theatrical charm when they’re alone, and the fact that he’s handsome and muscular. There’s also a mentor-protégé element to that romance, though: she knows nothing about performance and Zampano (as he tells everyone they encounter) teaches her everything she knows. And she becomes quite good. So could it be the case that what she experiences as romantic love is a confused pursuit of approval? Also, make note of the remark her mother makes in the beginning about how Gelsomina’s father abandoned them. Maybe there’s a confused father/lover thing going on too.
That mentor-protégé relationship is something I get twisted up about, too. My brother’s the same way, though we never talk about it and I don’t think he’d ever admit it. But yeah: I’ll bend over backwards to get the approval of any kind of mentor figure. It happened in bar tending school when I got outta college; it was big part of my relationship with Phil (the professor I befriended in college), and it’s definitely an aspect of my relationship with the ghostwriter I currently work for and the book critic with whom I correspond on a pretty regular basis. So I was definitely on Gel’s wavelength in that respect.
But I’ve also got an uncomfortable amount of personal experience rendering me sympathetic to her issue of embarrassing herself, or not quite living up to the interest of her romantic idyll.
The whole thing’s way more accessible and relatable than I thought it would be. It’s a beautiful story, wonderfully told, but I’m not quite blown away as I think I might have been if, as a young aspiring filmmaker, I’d seen it in ’54.