The Mindful Bard – La Strada

The Mythology of a Broken World

Film: La Strada
Director: Federico Fellini

” … a complete catalogue of my entire mythological world, a dangerous representation of my identity that was undertaken with no precedent whatsoever.”
– Federico Fellini

Gelsomina is the simple, naive daughter of a poor widow in rural Italy. One day She’s gathering firewood on the beach when her younger siblings come running to summon her with the news that travelling strongman, Zampano, has returned, without Rosa, the older sister who had left home to work as his assistant.

Gelsomina arrives to find her mother weeping dramatically while the handsome Zampano (played by Anthony Quinn) slouches, smokes, and casts a predator’s eye in Gelsomina’s direction. He’s just announced that Rosa is dead and asked if the widow has another daughter who could take her place. (From what we later learn of Zampano, we have to surmise that Rosa died of either abuse or neglect.) Mom, between kerchief tossing, mourner’s jargon, and loud sobs, markets Gelsomina to him as simple but goodhearted and hardworking.

Zampano hands Mom the promised 10,000 lire and sends the other children to buy wine and cheese. Mom accepts the money while valiantly exhibiting the full spectrum of feigned agony.

Gelsomina actually appears excited about leaving her tawdry country life and becoming an entertainer, a prospect that seems glamourous and exciting to her. She sees the good-looking Zampano as a kind of knight in shining armour, and, despite her mother’s tearful demonstrations, gladly climbs into the rickety motorcycle-drawn wagon to be carted off to the Land of Oz.

Her optimism is slowly broken down by the hardships of life on the road and Zampano’s gruff manner, drunkenness, and cruel training methods. To add insult to injury, after being forced to sleep with him she begins to think of him as her lover and is deeply hurt when he leaves her alone to carouse with other women. But she loves her role as a clown and announcer for the strong man, and audiences adore her in every village they visit, the children are drawn to her like flies to honey.

By the time she encounters The Fool, a clown and high-wire artist obviously symbolic of the trickster god (like the Norse Loki or the Haidas? Raven) the film has become profoundly mythological. The Fool, the embodiment of the magical, transcendent world to which Gelsomina has always been drawn, convinces Gelsomina of her own value and inherent freedom. This is when tragedy looms.

The Fool mocks Zampano, who represents the brute force of nature, until the enraged Zampano attacks and kills him.

This is more than Gelsomina can bear. After a period of near-catatonic shock she screams, “You killed The Fool!” before being abandoned and eventually wasting away.

The cinematography, like most of Fellini’s work, is comprised of black and white footage filled with light, wind, blown papers, untidiness, and wild gesticulation. The actors are all stunningly good, especially Fellini’s wife, the actress Giulietta Masina, in the role of Gelsomina. Her Puck-like face and piquant expressions are so masterfully expressive that she represents the archetypal child, clown, martyr, and angel all at once.

This is the film that, more than any other, was wrenched, kicking and screaming, from Fellini’s very soul. The film was plagued with funding and casting issues, and Fellini suffered a nervous breakdown during its creation, in part, one supposes, because of the deeply personal nature of the characters and the plot and his effort to remain true to his idea.

What makes this director great is his towering courage as an artist who toiled relentlessly for his vision despite all obstacles, clinging tenaciously to a compassionate and redemptive view of life. The fact that this formula resulted in such a masterpiece is part fate and part miracle.

La Strada
manifests eight of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It stimulates my mind.
– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
– It gives me artistic tools.
– It makes me want to be a better artist.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.