By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published September 29, 2011
Not long ago a former student of mine wrote to me with a compelling question. The student is currently serving in the Peace Corps, and to pass time in the evenings he is re-viewing many of the films he first studied in college.
“I’ve just finished watching Fellini’s ‘La Strada,’” he wrote, “and I think you’re wrong. Federico Fellini is not a Catholic filmmaker. The film is too bleak. How can you consider Fellini to be a Catholic artist?”
It is a complicated question, one that asks for a consideration of Fellini’s life, his critical reception, and his complex and evolving relationship with the Catholic Church. Most of all, it is a question that requires a return to the films.
So I watched “La Strada” again and even showed it to my current students. My earlier opinion of the movie not only held up, it was strengthened: “La Strada” is most definitely a Catholic film and may in fact be the best place from which to begin a new appraisal of Fellini’s own struggle with Catholicism.
Fellini was born in Rimini, Italy, in 1920 and was raised in a devout Catholic home and educated in parochial schools. He was as fascinated by religious ritual and devotion as he was by his other great passion, the circus. Even a cursory look at his best-known films evidences this dual attraction to the sacred and the carnivalesque.
“La Strada (The Road)” is a simple story that centers on three primary characters: Zampano, a traveling carnival strong man played by Anthony Quinn; Gelsomina, his apprentice and servant played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina; and Il Matto, the Fool, played by Richard Basehart. As the film opens, Zampano has come to Gelsomina’s home to report the death of her sister, who had worked for him. Because the family is in desperate need of money, Gelsomina’s mother literally sells her to Zampano as a replacement for the sister. The two set off across the countryside in a ramshackle wagon pulled along by Zampano’s motorcycle. In provincial towns, at weddings, even at a convent, Zampano teaches—cruelly—Gelsomina the art of his act. She learns to clown, to play the drum and trumpet, and to submit to Zampano’s every command, whether it involves cooking his meals or sleeping with him. One evening, while on a break from her own performance, Gelsomina watches the Fool perform his tightrope act; she is fascinated by him, and is delighted to encounter him again when she and Zampano decide to work for a circus that also employs the Fool. But Zampano and the Fool have a troubled past, and the two soon have a bitter fight that results in the firing of both. Zampano goes to jail; the Fool decides to travel alone, but when he encounters Zampano and Gelsomina later on the road, Zampano attacks him and accidentally kills him. Gelsomina is inconsolable, and her mourning becomes so intolerable to Zampano that he abandons her on the roadside. Several years later, visibly aged and obviously alone, Zampano is performing his same tired act for another circus. While out walking he overhears a familiar song, a tune that Gelsomina used to perform on her trumpet. When he inquires how the singer learned the song, he learns that Gelsomina had taught it to her before she died. Zampano is overcome to learn of Gelsomina’s death. He gets drunk, is thrown out of a café, and ends up alone on a beach weeping as he gazes up at the starry sky and the film comes to a close.
Now for many people this summary will indeed sound bleak. But I am certain that the film conveys a message of both redemption and hope. One must first consider the essential goodness of Gelsomina. She loves people. She seeks communion with all people she encounters, even Zampano. At one point in the film, Gelsomina is allowed to visit the sick room of a grotesquely ill child, and the two of them immediately make a connection. At the convent, a young nun becomes completely enamored by her. And her connection to the world extends beyond human beings to encompass all of nature; Fellini links her to the trees, the animals, the earth itself. During a rather crass religious procession in a small town, Gelsomina is the only observer who seems to fully appreciate the essence of the tribute to the Virgin Mary.
The Fool also is portrayed in religious terms. When we first see him, he is literally made to appear angelic; the spotlight surrounds him like a halo, and he walks across the sky. Like Gelsomina, the Fool is of course only human and given to human fallibility, but in an unforgettable sequence he reveals to Gelsomina—and to us—the fundamental truth that all of us have a purpose, all of us matter, and all of us need both God and one another.
Zampano does not understand this, yet the sad way in which he learns this truth is what makes the film so truly Catholic. Throughout his life, Zampano mistreats people. He lives, as Gelsomina says, like a beast, from moment to moment, town to town, with no regard for anything but himself and his appetites. He claims to need no one, to love no one. But as the film finally makes clear, he desperately needs—and desires—communion with both the human and the divine.
The ending of “La Strada” is often crudely described as “a drunk guy passes out on the beach; big deal.” But it is a big deal. For the first time in his life, a self-absorbed nihilist realizes his need for love. For the first time, when he looks up at the sky, he asks for that love. The Catholic who sees “La Strada” again will recognize that Zampano’s gaze to the stars represents not a look into the existential abyss but a gesture indicative of God’s grace. Fellini brilliantly refrains from telling, or explaining, what that gaze means because as a Catholic artist, he knows that we, like the Fool, intuitively know that Zampano at last understands his need for love and accepts the gift of being able to ask for it.
Fellini was lauded by the church for “La Strada”; just a few years later the church would famously renounce “La Dolce Vita.” Throughout his career, Fellini and the church hierarchy and censors were often at bitter odds. Yet when Fellini died in 1993, he was in communion with the Catholic Church; he received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and was given a funeral Mass. The cardinal who had once most loudly derided Fellini’s work led the procession into the church, where the eulogist proclaimed that “his films are poetry which enters the hearts of the people. We should put our questions to the poets, listen to them for the knowledge they have of the suffering world.”
Fittingly, when the Vatican recognized the 100th anniversary of the cinema by issuing its list of 45 important films, “La Strada” was among those chosen as representative of cinema’s ability “to challenge the human spirit by dealing in depth with subjects of great meaning and importance from an ethical and spiritual point of view.”