La Strada (1954)

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Fourth time with Fellini, after La Dolce Vita, and Juliet of the Spirits. Correction: this is my favourite.

Return of Giulietta Masina, who takes centre stage for me. I like Ebert: “in one way or another, … [in] most of her other films, she was always playing Gelsomina.” Fool: “she has the right face.” Direct and untainted expression. G is a mime before she has put on any makeup; Fellini accentuating the studio dubbing gives the picture a silent quality – G seems silent even when she speaks. (Nino Rota again on the score: thumping whirling hightop fare, artfully deployed: wiki on themes, but also see trudging quiet while Zampanò instructs then comic flutter as he turns his back, G smiling up at her new hat.) Was reading about the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire again today, with that haunting picture of the crying clown coming to the rescue.

G is always in the absent Rosa’s place. Her compulsion to stay with Z is at least in part down to a search for her dead sister, who has come before her physically and in life – G asking if she’d done this or that. G isn’t like R, says her mother; she’s kind – Z is only on the beach for one of them.

Negotiation between experience and performance: G laughing as Z slaps the waitress’ backside – everything seems comic vaudeville until she’s left in the street. The Fool’s Houdini death. Z himself is a scowling brute, a savage condemning himself to break his chains over and over again, snarling liberation. “What is there to think about?” The two fools are Shakespearean: they know more than he’d like to admit.

G planting tomatoes; G smiling as the nun says they move from place to place to avoid “putting down roots”. With the stone she seems to have found a sense of place, but it is a lie. (I don’t want to be a star / but a stone on the shore) Z to circus master: “she’s not like us who have travelled the Earth.”

Osvaldo in the cot! His face even more expressive than G’s; locked away upstairs like a forbidden mirror. G’s humour is so physical, Bergsonian in imitation of objects, it connects with children. To me O is Childhood, like the essential female Arlette immured in JotS. G is hurried away. FF working towards the oneiric structuring of his next decades.

Other people: the wedding is a riotous gallery, a Breughel cross-section fed by a tireless mother. (coldness contrasting with G’s own, bipolar) The crowd staring up at the fool, directed by a loudhaler, the rope and the lights – fascism in the darkness? I see Florentina Hubaldo in G tottering spinning down the lane following the small band; (cut to the Journey to Italy crowd pursuing the Catholic procession) I see Andrei Rublev‘s opening blue drunkard in the communal joy of F’s circus shenanigans.

FF’s mise-en-scène is ace in this; the backdrops are sparse when they need to be, glitteringly cluttered when they need to be. Love the countryside in this film: empty but sweeping, often human. Hardy in the gothic violence behind the simple story, (Steinbeck, Night of the Hunter too especially in Z) the local economies of relationships, God’s thundering dull power.

To find one fault, FF steers us towards the poignant ending on a slow and steady decline. There is a heartbreaking bump though: Z hesitating, leaving the trumpet by the sleeping G as he escapes her company in the wagon across the snow. Kidding himself that he hasn’t already taken her dreams of performance and joy with him. (Of course the trumpet leitmotif comes back to haunt him)

Elemental. A huge achievement after his neo-realist period. Every month that goes by, I feel more that Italy is cinema’s greatest nation.

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