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.

NetFlix Review #2: La Dolce Vita

Movies, by their nature, are fantasies. They edit time, they select viewpoints and compositions, they use lighting, sound and scripting in fantastical ways to make even the most mundane of situations into a narrative of some ilk. This is, by and large, why we go to see movies. We embrace that fantastical element completely as soon as we pay our ticket, or in this case our NetFlix fee. However, this knowledge of the fantastic nature of film can be used for good and for evil, because as much as the nature of film is fantasy, the essential quest of film is truth. This is why we can happily watch a movie about men fighting laser battles in space a long time ago in a galaxy far far away as long as it obeys internal logic and expresses inner truths, but we get upset and annoyed when a film about a banker in Detroit has its main character make small decisions that do not make any logical sense.

One genre of film in which the fantasy frequently lies is the story of The Awesome Cad Versus the Uptight Straights. This kind of movie sets up a false “truth” that anyone who claims to be happy with their middle-class, work-a-day existence is a liar, and there’s a freedom loving, free-loving, swinging dude out there who is totally ready to break down their cheap façade. These movies are cheaply didactic, as they also contain within them the inelegant and idiotically circular defense that “if you don’t like it, you’re one of the squares.” Then, of course, there’s the other side of the coin, the films that show The Cad as being the ruiner of all things, the great destroyer, the beast. Follow down his path of sexy outfits and indulgence in alcohol and doobies and you’ll end up selling your body for Big Macs in some Abel Ferrara-inspired hellscape.
The problem with exploring the life of the cad, the lothario, the brigand, is that it is hard not to break it down into an “us versus them” story of one ilk or another. Rarely ever do we get to see a movie that simply presents the cad to us and shows him to us for what he is, which is one of the reasons why La Dolce Vita is such a brilliant film. Make no mistake, Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is a cad. He chases women, he won’t settle down with his ever-suffering girlfriend, he lives the fast life of a tabloid journalist and enjoys his alcohol. However, the film refuses to truly judge him. This isn’t the kind of non-judgment that is equivocal to minor undertones of either condoning or condescension. This is a non-judgment that simply allows this man to be who he is, for better and for worse. You can love him or you can hate him, and the movie understands both positions. He’s certainly charming. Marcello Mastroianni is brilliant, Cary Grant with an edge of sadness and existential angst. The movie shows the man at his worst, arguing with his girlfriend and kicking her out of the car or drunkenly abusing guests at a celebration. It also shows him at his best, his tender affections towards the wounded bird played by Anouk Aimee and his deep, resounding love for his friend Steiner. Fellini does not ask you to choose one Marcello over the other; they are both presented as two contradictory parts of a whole.

Speaking of parts of the whole, it’s astounding that the film works as one entire story. The film is structurally episodic, but doesn’t feel that way. It’s a testament to Fellini that the movie feels like an organic whole. The secret, I believe, is also the secret to why the Marcello character doesn’t descend into either satire or moralistic fable- the story isn’t so much about Marcello the man as Marcello the moment. The character is a man completely of his place and time, and he's engaging with every piece of it. It’s important that the film is called La Dolce Vita, The Sweet Life, and not, say, The Tabloid Reporter or Marcello. This is a film about The Life. This is also why it’s important to note that Marcello is a tabloid journalist. He’s not out to get facts or create any meaningful exposes, he’s out to capture the glitz and glamour, the beautiful sheen of the carefree life of the rich. The tabloids feed that dream of the rich, while the film ironically brings out its actuality.

The scenes themselves are astounding, each one crafted beautifully to build towards dramatic, revelatory conclusions. Each scene shows us a small, new corner of Marcello’s elaborate and complex personality. My favorite, perhaps, is the whole section of the film revolving around a surprise visit from Marcello’s father. The movie once again sidesteps dull, easy drama by avoiding a rote my-father-was-never-there-for-me scenario. The interplay between Marcello and his father is one of two men who may not know each other on a strong personal level, but they certainly understand each other on a level as basic as blood. Each scenario is also brought out by its stunning location. There’s the wild nightclubs of Marcello’s father’s visit, the wild outlands where the children are claiming to see the Virgin Mary, the ornate fountain where the stunning Anita Ekberg is wooed to distraction by the vivacity of life, the stark modern apartment of Steiner, the old, decadent house in which Marcello confesses his feelings for Anouk Aimee, they all tell the story just as much as any of the words or performances do.

It’s not just the landscapes that are gorgeous. Fellini fills the movie with some of the most stunning actresses ever assembled. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever neglect a woman as pretty Yvonne Furneaux, but then you get a glimpse of the sensual Audrey-Hepburn-cum-Sophia-Loren Anouk Aimee and the complete bombshell that is Anita Ekberg and you begin to wonder how anyone could keep their head around so many pretty women. That’s not even getting into all the bit players, like Marcello’s dancer ex and Nico! Nico, as herself! Looking darn good back in the day.

But a whole lot of good all those good looking ladies are going to do our protagonist. One of the film’s main themes is a breakdown of communication. The film opens and closes with Marcello being unable to hear someone, specifically adorable young women, over the din of a roaring helicopter at the beginning (boy, how about those great helicopter shots!) and the breaking of waves at the end. In perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the movie Marcello confesses his feelings for Anouk Aimee within an echo chamber, only to have Amiee, who is out of sight, take up with a stranger. However, in keeping with the movie, Marcello doesn’t view it all as a total loss. In the final moments of the film Marcello sits on a beach, all the former partiers marveling at a strange beast brought up on the shore by local fishermen. Across a little inlet from Marcello is a young girl who worked at a restaurant Marcello sat at while he tried to write his abandoned novel. The girl, looking more than a little angelic, tries calling out to Marcello, but he cannot hear her. She pantomimes typing, calling out to him to remember what he once tried to be, but Marcello can’t parse it and ends up giving her a wry smile and a shrug. The girl smiles back, and Marcello goes to rejoin his party. The ending is valuable for what it is not. It is not a harrowing morality play, it is not a joyful exaltation. It is life, and in its own way, if not wholly sweet, then perhaps bitterly so.

As always, please respond. I just sort of brain-vomit this stuff out, so I'd love to hear what other people think!