Sunday, March 9, 2008

LA STRADA - #219

I've always had a thing for dualities. Though I don't subscribe to Randian objectivism, I do believe that there are blacks and whites in this world, building blocks of either/or that the universe is constructed with. I think part of it is that I envy the assuredness of the opposing sides. The fallacy of the duality is that in reality for every two there is a sore-thumb third, the one who walks in gray and who usually threatens the duo. I tend to be that guy. I can't choose a side, I stay in ambiguity.

Duos in movies are as old as movies themselves. Particularly in comedy, the double team has always been popular (Laurel & Hardy, Hope & Crosby, Martin & Lewis). The guy with the punchlines needs a straight man to bounce them off of, just as comedy needs tragedy to fill the balloon that will inevitably pop. In this sense, Federico Fellini's circus act in his 1954 film La Strada represents a classic idea. The strong man Zampano (Anthony Quinn) is the straight man, and his gentle clown Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is the comic foil. In their partnership, they embody both sides of the human coin. They are the profane and the sacred, earth and water, selfishness and empathy. Even their hair and size shows the split: he is dark and tall, she is blonde and short.

They are also art and commodity, though like most art, the distinction flips. She starts off as commodity, with Zampano purchasing her for a paltry amount from her poverty-stricken family. Zampano had previously taken Gelsomina's older sister from her mother, but she has since died in an unexplained manner, and the brute needs a replacement. He goes from town to town performing his feats of strength for coins, and his female sidekick builds him up and collects the lucre. Zampano is often branded as an animal throughout La Strada, and it's probably the only insult that can touch him. At one point, blanching at the tag, he counters that it doesn't take a team of oxen to do what he does. His main trick is tying a chain around his chest and bursting out of it, breaking the 1/4" hook that binds the links with his lungs of steel. It's a mythic image brought low by the unsophisticated presentation.

Zampano fails to see that the true artist in his midst is his new servant. A natural born mimic and a genial joker, Gelsomina adds new life to his rough routine. Her dances, animal impressions, and pantomime endear her to the crowds, particularly the children. She has a saintly quality, her wide eyes taking in the world they travel ("La Strada" means "the road") and welcoming all she sees. She is also an innocent incapable of processing the harsh realities that come her way. As a writer, I've often found it hard to put such characters through the dark patches they will inevitably encounter. My mind boggles at how Fellini could not only write the role (along with Tullio Pinelli), but also then have the strength to bring it to life for the camera using Masina, his real-life wife. The actress strikes such a lovable figure, and like Chaplin's Tramp, she seems incapable of hurting a fly despite also being capable of putting herself through any dangerous pratfall. There is very little dialogue for the part, so Masina communicates all of this through her face, giving us little hint of the motor-mouth title role she'd play for her husband in Nights of Cabiria four years later.

The relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina is not a loving one, but it works in its own fashion. Though the setting is unique, with the pair moving from solo performers to joining a circus and back to solo again, the "marriage" is not all that special. Sadly, the abusive husband and the docile wife is an all too-common occurrence. Perhaps this is how Fellini gets so much relatable emotion out of a circus couple, much in the same way Ingmar Bergman managed to say something about relationships in his circus production, Sawdust & Tinsel, the year before.

Like Bergman's traveling troupe, much of the social dramaturgy in La Strada comes out of who is sleeping in what wagon on the train, and though the catalytic relationship is not adulterous, the struggle between the two men involved might as well have sex and/or affection at its root--though it gives Fellini's scenario a greater moral gravitas that it does not.

The inevitable third is known only as the Fool, and he is played by American actor Richard Baseheart. It's fitting that the Fool is introduced during a convergence of religious ceremony and popular entertainment. As a Catholic festival spills out of the church and into a party in the streets, the Fool performs a daring high-wire act over spectators' heads, impressing Gelsomina, who has just abandoned Zampano. He is acrobatic and witty, and everything as a performer that Zampano is not. In high school terms, the Fool is the class clown and Zampano is the jock.

Except the Fool is not a good guy. He first appears wearing angel's wings, but by his next appearance, he is no longer floating on air and he no longer has the wings, he has fallen to Earth. Like Lucifer in Eden, he is there to tempt God's primitive creatures. He taunts Zampano into violent tantrums and toys with Gelsomina's mind. His greatest feat is not getting her to betray her man, but to betray herself by staying with Zampano. The ironic twist, however, is when he takes it too far, he makes the schism between the giant and the child too obvious, and they no longer have any choice but to part. Neither can survive without the other. We don't see Gelsomina again, but Zampano's fate is shown to us in a referential moment worthy of Godard or Scorsese, the giant flanked by a poster for the ultimate expression of film-noir doom, D.O.A.

A final duality is in the nature of Fellini's cinema as a whole. Though in his canon La Strada was film #3 1/2, its two main characters could be argued to represent the opposing directions of the pull of Italian Neorealism and the lure of Fellini's own muse. If Zampano is the earth and the soil, then he could be representative of the movement amongst Fellini's peers to portray the reality of their surroundings, while the more fanciful Gelsomina, beyond having roots in whimsical Hollywood and theatrical expressions, is also signaling the break from reality that would define the director's best work, such as La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. It wouldn't be the first or the last time an artist pulled something out of the warring factions of inspiration, the battle between what is expected and what is desired. Again, it's art and commerce, love and practicality, the central concerns of La Strada and often of life itself.

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