Monday, April 12, 2021

La strada

The Owl of the Tarp

I would venture to say that Fellini's La strada [The Road, 1954], one of the most famous "foreign films," gained its popularity through two aspects which remain indelible 'sousconscierie' for most who think back on this picture, the memory of which indeed matches the actuality of the story and the images onscreen: (1) simpering, 'simple' Gelsomina's (Giulietta Masina) and barrel-chested Zampanò's (Anthony Quinn) sado-masochistic relationship, replete with a chain that snaps before it is replenished once more; and (2) the totality of the landscape that looks as though Zampanò's motorbike-wagon-combo alone could traverse its mud-clumped topography. Emblazoned on one side of the vehicle's tarp: Zampanò's name. On the opposite: a naïve painting of an owl that might be a stand-in for Gelsomina... — no. The illustration predates Gelsomina's service to Zampanò — is the vestige, perhaps, of Gelsomina's sister Rosa's time with Zampanò, she who died in the 'care' of the vagabond. Sans toit ni loi — the chain is perpetually reassembled. 

Eternal return. The film begins where it will end, on the beach bordering Gelsomina's and Rosa's family home. "Gelsomina...!" sounds in the distance, sirened like a ghostly oath, echoed at the end of the film by Rota's famous theme sung by the woman at the clothesline. Gelsomina answers the call, reeds affixed to her back in an image not unlike something from Mizoguchi's Ugetsu monogatari. She will be sold to Zampanò for 10,000 lire. Mama reasons with her daughter: "It's not your fault you're not like other girls."

Zampanò will have his way with Gelsomina in the back of the wagon shortly after taking to the road. She awakens, smiles at him wanly, and wipes her eyes. Zampanò will later sleep with a bouncy donna following one performance, and another, more ravaged (if not necessarily older) lady in the aftermath of a wedding party, who seduces him in the most circumspect of phrases. The courtship of "il Matto" (the Fool, Richard Basehart) towards Gelsomina results in a deadly outcome. (The first time we see him is as a shade traversing a building in the midst of a tight-rope walk illuminated by projector lights and torches.) Some episode from Zampanò's and il Matto's past remains an open wound — Basehart's own death-wish or masochistic tendencies find him incapable of referring to Quinn as anything other than "Ciufile," a bowdlerization of "Fucile" (or "Rifle") and potential mockery of the old wolf's potency. One suspects un'avventura between il Matto and Rosa. 

Fellini will come full circle again when he parallels the ending of La strada with that of La dolce vita. As Scorsese might put it, both films conclude with a spiritual reckoning. One beautiful moment:

"Where are we?" "In Rome! That's St. Paul's!" On the soundtrack, a dove flitters by.  



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