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January 01, 2009
La Strada 1954:Frederico Fellini
Gelsomina and Zampanò in the circus ring
1954 can in some ways be seen as a turning point in Italian cinema as a shift away from neorealism as a dominant aesthetic force amongst more independant film-makers had gone beyond its sell-by date. In many ways the idealised notion of what norealism was was in fact rarely met, with films such as Rome Open City relying upon melodrama and at times a mise en scene which owed something to German Expressionism, however, La Strada by Fellini and Senso by Visconti were releases that moved away from norealism in quite different directions. In terms of ideological approaches, trouble with the censors and a critical response which prioritised the less challenging La Strada over Senso at the Venice Film Festival. Marcus (1986) picks up on the analysis of the contemporary Marxist critic Aristarco who saw in Senso a development of neoralism into a historically based realism whilst by comparison La Strada reprsented a regression to prewar individualism and mysticism as well as becoming a quest for pure style placed above content. Whilst Aristarco may have been overly harsh and in danger of being reductionist I think that Senso is the more important film but it was politically a hot potato at the time.Certainly André Bazin stormed to Fellini's defence.
|At the opening of the film we see small children on a beach who have come to collect their elder sister Gelsomina taking her to met Zampanò. Zampanò is an itinerant 'artiste' with a strongman act. He has returned to give Gelsomina's mother 10,000 Lire for the right to take Gelsomina with him to act as his assistant. We learn that Zampano had already done the same with Rosa, Gelsomina's older sister but that she had 'died'. This assertion is never confirmed within the film. The deal is agreed and then the film which is effctively a road movie starts. The film is structured in a series of episodes which are largely discreet and there is no strong underlying linear narrative driven forward by ach episode This structure is therefore a good representation of the contingency which rules the lives of itinerant entertainers. Initially both Gelsomina and the audience are introduced to Zampanò's act which is a simple one consisting of binding his chest in a chain and breaking the link by expanding his chest. Gelsomina is introduced into what Zampanò needs doing to help him create a performance. Zampanò is taciturn and uncommunicative and makes Gelsomina very unhappy and she wants to return home. After several episodes including entertaining a wedding and witnessing a high wire act in a small city they join a circus on the outskirts of Rome. Here Gelsomina meets The Fool who tries to train her and also temt her away from Zampano. There is much emnity between The Fool and Zampanò which ends with Zampanò spending a night in jail. In the end The Fool persuades Gelsomina to stay with Zampanò by pointing out that she is important because she is the only person in the World to be able to put up with Zampanò. In later episode Zampanò comes across The Fool whose car has broken down. Zampanò hits the fool a couple of times but the Fool dies. After that Gelsomina suffers breakdown and Zampanò, who shows no remorse about the killing abandons her. The films cuts to a beach resort which turns out to be five years later. Zampanò learns that Gelsomina had been there and had died. Zampanò goes to a bar to drown his sorrows and eventually ends up on the beach in a foetal position clutching at sand in an echo of the Fool's death where he was clutching handfuls of grass.
Reading some current critical responses and analyses of La Strada has been rather surprising. To my mind some of it is very overblown and efffectively a post-hoc defence of the film's success. Some comments seem based upon assertion rather than being grounded. Peter Bondanella (2002) numbers amongst these critics who tend to exaggerate
The very fact that Gelsomina, Zampano and The Fool appear normally as stock commedia dell'arte characters, often obscuring their identities with makeup and clown accessories... (Bondanella 2002 p 58)
Well, this is something of an exaggration because for a lot of the film Zampano, for example, is in his everyday clothes. He is strongly associated with wearing an old flying jacket to keep warm on the motorbike/caravan. His corduroy trousers have a huge patch in the seat. Zampano manages to get a suit to fit him from the widow who was organising the wdding celebrations. Apart from his show cloths Zampano had nothing else. It is in this suit that we see him in the closing shots of the film getting drunk and ending up on the beach.
A little further on Bondanella discusss the "magical" appearance of some musicians whilst Gelsomina is sitting on the bank playing with some insects (Availabl in Youtube xtract above). In fact although it is a 'magical moment' there is a good underlying reason for the musicians being there as they are on their way to a festival. Bondanella's article focuses upon the notion of the deep poetic powers of Fellini's image making:
The most poetic quality of La Strada consists in its fablelike plot, which is constructed upon archetypal narrative elements that seem as old as time. (Bondanella 2002, p62)
Like great poetry, this film can support equally well a number of intrpretations; and perhaps part of Fellini's message is that a complicated, academic exegesis serves little purpose unless the spectator feels the emotional impact of the film's visuals. (ibid 63)
Whilst not in anyway trying to downplay the visual power of Fellini's work Bondanella is focused upon placing Fellini on a poetic pedestal as though this was not achieved by other filmmakers. Visconti's Ossessione was full of remarkable visual poetry and as for his later The Leopard this combined a high point of aesthetic achievement whilst not compromising on the politics. In contemporary terms on might wish to look at the extraordinary visual power of the work of Angelopoulos for example.
Part of the attraction of this film rests upon a fundamental binary opposite which is apparent between Gelsomina and Zampanò. It is a 'Beauty and the Beast' syndrome and the Chaplinesque characteristics of Giulietta Masina (Fellini's wife) as Gelsomina playing opposite American actor Anthony Quinn whose reputation was built on being a 'hard man' character was central to the appeal of this film. Surprisingly the critics haven't picked up on the mystical associations between Gelsomina being a little "fey" as the Scots would say and "nature" this really is such a cliché which Fellini gets away with and nowadays fminist criticism would be strongly commenting upon this. Although Marcus (1986) thinks Aristarco's accusations about the film's lapse towards cheap mysticism to be "wrongheaded" a reasonably objective account to my mind will find it hard to avoid this conclusion.
Maybe there is a Catholic consciousness presnt amongst some of the critics as Gelsomina becomes associated with a sort of Christlike character. The fact is that Gelsomina is a bit of a simpleton who is innocent and näif and thus ripe for exploitation. She is thoroughly exploited by someone who for the rest of th world can only be considered a loser. Gelsomina's shift from wanting to escape into a position of self-sacrifice to the point of total mental breakdown is a tragic event. Taken as a study in cruelty and neglect with a position of some sort of redemption in the final scene the film works well and certainly there are powerful images which underpin the film.
To some extent this film seems to have been constructed to appeal to a growing international Art House cinema as the de Laurentis production team was behind the film. The fact that two American actors were involved and post-dubbed shows that there was a clear eye to marketing from th outset. This paid off handsomely with the film doing well with overseas audiences.
Despite some of my scepticism regarding some of the academic critical positions this film is certainly very good and well worth seeing. It is important that it is recognised that this film is a move away from neorealism for there is no serious institutional criticism implied compared for example with Umberto D. Some of th parameters of neorelism are present such as grinding poverty and with a strong emphasis on outdoor shooting:
La Strada remains a film indifferent to the social and historical concerns of orthodox norealism. (Marcus 1986 p 150)
With the film focusing upon individual characters Bazin defended it by describing it as a form of "neorealism of the person" (in Marcus 1986 p 148). Marcus sees this attitude to the film as one which is holistic considering problems of existence beyond sociopolitical and historical determinants.
Certainly the film marked a distinctive break with neorealism and Fellini increasingly followed his own artistic projects from then on putting an increasing distance between himself and left-wing politics.
Bondanella, Peter. 2004. The Films of Frederico Fellini. Cambridge: Cambridge Univrsity Press
Marcus, Millicent.1986. Italian film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton: Princeton University Press