NetFlix Review #9: La Strada

Finally! Not only did this take me a while to watch, but then last week was Commencement Week at Columbia, and then Emily's grandfather got ill and so Memorial Day Weekend was spent at a hospital in Annisquam, MA. So it's been a bit of a ragged week and change, but now that I've got some breathing space, here's La Strada.

I think that La Dolce Vita kind of ruined me. When I watched it the whole thing felt so fresh and new and alive, so idiosyncratic in a delightful, heartfelt way. La Strada is wonderful, but in a very standard way. The minute that proud, uber-tough Zampano, played by Anthony Quinn, purchases innocent Giulietta Masina's Gelsomina from her widowed mother to be his apprentice in his one-man carnival act, we see where this is going, and we know where it will end. Roger Ebert believes La Strada to be the first movie you could truly call "Fellini-esque," and I can see that, but I feel like it is also a film where you can still see some growing pains. The main issue, I believe, is that the greatest interests I had in the film were in the small, aside moments. I found the relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina troubling, which I'll discuss later, but every time there was a diversion, like their stop at the church, the wedding scene (especially Gelsomina's visit to the little boy upstairs) and The Fool's tightrope walk all so much more engaging. It seems to me from what little I know about Fellini that later on he started crafting movies more out of those moments than the sort of standard "love" story like the one we see here.

But we're not talking about those movies, we're talking about La Strada, which does in some way contain a "love" story, so let's talk, shall we? First of all, it seems odd when I went and read up on the movie after watching it that everyone seems to think of Gelsomina as being simple, some saying she has the intelligence of a 10 year old, that she's mentally deficient, etc. I didn't see that. Certainly she's innocent - one gets the feeling that life with her widowed mother was sheltered at best - but there seems to me to be an undeniable perception that she has that is more than just some "eyes of a child" type wonder. For instance, in the scene where she is brought up to meet the disfigured boy at the wedding, my favorite scene in the whole film, she performs two acts which show a worldview far more advanced than childish. First of all, when she is brought into the room, she does not gape and stare at the child. It seemed to me that the children were bringing her up there to shock her, to show off the weird creature living upstairs, but Gelsomina does not see it that way, i.e. a "childish" way. What she begins doing, instantly, is performing. She wants to show this child the same respect, care and due dilligence as the other children. After she performs for a minute she sees the child is still withdrawn and afraid, and she commits her second non-childish act. She stops the show, walks over to his bed, and gives him one of the warmest, beautiful and heartbreaking smiles ever captured on celluloid. It is a magical moment, but not a childish one. The way she deals with Zampano throughout the movie also bespeaks of an intelligence and a wit that puts to rest, to my mind, the idea that she is "simple." Plus, if she's simple, what are we to think of the other characters?

To my mind, Zampano and The Fool are far more childish and mentally deficient than Gelsomina. Zampano seems to be operating largely on animal instincts. He beats up anything he feels threatened by and then spends most of the rest of his time eating, drinking and picking up women of the night. The Fool, although obviously patterned after the fools of Shakespeare and Commedia del Arte, never really speaks that much truth to power, as those classical fools are known to do. He winds up Zampano in the basest of ways for no reason other than to wind him up, and then the one time he does give advice and spout a little philosophy, it's to tell Gelsomina that she should stay with Zampano, which should seem like a pretty roundly terrible idea to anyone with any sense, and indeed proves to be so in the end. If you had to ask me who to go to for any sort of councel, Gelsomina, Zampano or The Fool, I'd take Gelsomina for pretty much anything.

And that's where I grew frustrated with the movie. It seemed like Fellini wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. Gelsomina has to be smart and perceptive, but not THAT smart and perceptive, and we never really get to see any dimensions of Zampano that would make anyone stay with him. It becomes that circular logic where the tail ends up wagging the dog, where we feel like Gelsomina is perceptive about some things, so we wonder why she would stay with Zampano. "Because she's simple!" Ah yes, but what about how she handles the boy upstairs, or the many times she trumps Zampano at his own games? "Because sometimes simple people can be perceptive!" But if she's at all perceptive, why does she stay with Zampano? "Because she's simple!!" These things bother me. The greater problem is that my issue with these elements of the basic narrative setups of the movie cause me to have a disconnect with all the action that happens further within the film. What do I make of the two deaths that occur? What about the ending, with Zampano writhing angry and alone on the beach? It's a moment fraught with dramatic potential, but, to my mind, comes up empty because the character himself has come up empty, and is at best grovelling in self-inflicted misery. (Incidentally, one could read the ending of La Dolce Vita as revisiting this ending, a helpless man alone on a beach, but I felt a true, expansive weight to the scene in La Dolce Vita that I did not feel here, and the contrast only makes it sharper.) I understand on some artistic theoretical level why these things occur, but I could neither feel anything for them, nor did they play as anything realistic or insightful. They just seemed like story elements that are playing out because those are the story elements that have to play out because that's the story, you see? Which is a shame, because in the weighty scales of art this movie comes down much more solidly on the "awesome" side than on the "bad" side. The film is beautiful, the music is stunning and there are many singular elements throughout the story that are brilliant. But with all great art there is an entry point that one must walk through to really embrace it, and I felt myself denied entry to this movie based on how it sets up its characters.

Which is also a shame, because the actors are all good in their own ways. Quinn plays a great brute, his curmudgeonly bad humor, his swarthy gate and his impenetrable meanness (stealing a silver heart from a church that housed him! Nasty!) make him a definite scoundrel, which is always fun to see. Richard Basehart's work as The Fool has a breasy, fun feel. His patter during his act is fantastically doofy and the simple sight gag of watching him taunt the large, looming Quinn is a joy. And then there's Giulietta Masina, who is both the best and worst of the film. When she is allowed to go full into Harpo Marx/Charlie Chaplin dafiness, or when she is just allowed to be, she is a discovery. I cannot stress enough how charmed I was by just that scene of her with the child. There is also a scene where Gelsomina is waiting for Zampano to be released from prison and there are some children playing, and a little girl comes over to the distraught woman, hands her a present of some knicknack or other that's just lying around, and then sits down beside her. These moments are brilliant. However, when they try and milk her for pathos, or play up her simplicity, it all falls apart for me. Also, none of these characters seem to come together intertextually. I feel like someone could argue that this unconnectedness could be "the whole point, man," but then I'd be forced to stare at that person with a devastatingly arched eyebrow.

All-in-all, though, I definitely recommend checking it out, especially if you have any interest in Fellini. There is way, WAY more than enough good stuff just lying around this movie to make it worth a watch, even if the whole thing doesn't come together.