Instant Cue: Federico Fellini

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    The Criterion Collection distributes classic foreign and independent films on home video, but the company is removing all of its movies from Netflix streaming by the end of 2011. Instant Cue suggests Criterion titles still available on Netflix by focusing on a different filmmaker each week.

    In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer finds himself stuck in a movie theater line next to a professor loudly pontificating about Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini: “We saw the Fellini film last Tuesday. It is not one of his best. It lacks a cohesive structure, you know? You get the feeling that he’s not absolutely sure what it is he wants to say. Of course, I’ve always felt that he was essentially a technical filmmaker. Granted, La Strada was a great film […] All that Juliet of the Spirits or Satyricon, I found it incredibly indulgent, you know? He really is. He’s one of the most indulgent filmmakers.”

    These words are an insulting reflection on the finest filmmaker in Italian history. With fantastical imagery and autobiographical nostalgia, the films of Fellini have had a profound impact on international culture. The director won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film four times, more than any other filmmaker. His visionary 8 ½ (1963) is frequently considered one of the 10 greatest films, and it inspired Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and the Broadway musical Nine. His early feature I Vitelloni (1953) is cited as a crucial influence on Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets — both films feature characters plagued by conscience but surrounded by men who refuse to acknowledge the frivolousness of their lifestyles. And perhaps most significantly, the word “paparazzi” originated with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), featuring a news photographer named Paparazzo.

    In many ways, La Strada is the perfect gateway to classic European cinema.

    Although most cinephiles would decry the blasphemous criticisms of Fellini articulated in Annie Hall, there is something to be said about the professor’s concession that La Strada (1954) is a great film. In many ways, it is the perfect gateway to classic European cinema. With its focused storytelling, La Strada appeals to viewers familiar with conventional Hollywood storytelling, yet it has the brutal honesty and humanistic themes that characterize many European masterpieces. Scored by Nino Rota of Godfather fame, the movie explores postwar Italy and exhibits Fellini’s talent for capturing beautiful performances, writing memorable dialogue and extending compassion to all of his characters.

    The English translation of the film’s title is The Road. The film follows the relationship of street performer and sidekick. Most of the film shows the perspective of the nearly silent Gelsomina, played by Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife from 1943 until his death in 1993. In the film’s opening moments, she is sold by her impoverished mother to the brutal street performer Zampano, played by American actor Anthony Quinn. Introduced to street audiences by the drum roll of the clown Gelsomina, Zampano breaks iron chains with his bare chest. Zampano emotionally and physically abuses the childlike Gelsomina, and she gets on his nerves, but the two characters stay together for most of the film.

    This film is most essential because of Masina’s heart-wrenching performance. The actress has been referred to by many as the female Charlie Chaplin, with her quirky mannerisms and wide-eyed naivety in the face of adversity. When Zampano gives new clothes to Masina for performances, he presents her with hats resembling Chaplin’s derby and Harpo Marx’s top hat. Making us laugh with just her facial gestures, Masina has the talent of these wordless comedic stars. Her wide eyes communicate a sense of joy at everything in the world, and she seeks to find beauty even in the beastly Zampano and the devastated landscape of a postwar nation. Consider how she smiles when saying goodbye to hear family, even as her eyes glisten with tears. And although the Gelsomina character often performs for audiences in the narrative, there are moments when Fellini captures her expressions when no other characters are watching. After receiving her clothes and hats, she makes a silly face to herself as Zampano walks away. Fellini sets the film as a stage for her talent, and Masina performs.

    Matching the director’s unique visuals, Fellini’s writing demonstrates his heart and his understanding of characters.

    In addition to his masterful direction of actors, Fellini stands out as a great writer of dialogue. Throughout his career, he was nominated for eight screenplay Academy Awards, the record for foreign language films. One potentially distracting aspect of older Italian films for American audiences today is the imperfect synchronization of image and sound. For decades in Italy, filmmakers dubbed dialogue in post-production because they shot on location rather than on sound stages. This might be disorienting at first, but the Oscar nominated words of La Strada remain poetic nonetheless. The best lines of the films belong to the Fool, a tightrope walker and rival of Zampano played by Richard Basehart. Assuring Gelsomina that everyone’s life has meaning, the Fool suggests, “If this pebble has no purpose, then everything is pointless.” Matching the director’s unique visuals, Fellini’s writing demonstrates his heart and his understanding of characters.

    In another memorable line of the film, the Fool tries to rationalize the violent nature of Quinn’s character: “Ever seen those dogs who look like they want to speak, but all they do is bark?” This line indicates Fellini’s desire for audiences to extend compassion to all of his characters. Zampano is seemingly irredeemable, whipping the childlike Gelsomina when training her for performance and violently attacking the Fool in a fit of jealous rage. He is possessive and sexist, assuming that the women in the film are weak and incapable of independent thought. Yet Fellini asks us to consider his value as a human being, especially when the film shifts to Zampano’s perspective for the final act. In his introduction for the film’s Criterion Collection DVD (featuring spoilers), Scorsese says his own preference for self-destructive characters can be traced back to the influence of La Strada. In Scorsese’s Raging Bull, boxing champion Jake LaMotta takes out his anger on himself and those around him, but the film asks us to consider the fallibility of all human beings. It is the influence of its profound sense of humanism that makes La Strada resonate so strongly to this day.

    To me, La Strada is Fellini’s greatest film. I might be biased because it was the first European foreign language classic I ever encountered. It opened my eyes to an entire world of cinema. But even with 8 ½’s dreamy imagery and Amarcord’s playful nostalgia, La Strada stands out for its performances, writing and tremendous compassion. Its greatness is both a testament to the talent of Fellini and the importance of European cinema. Today, the foreign language Oscar is essentially a joke, but La Strada and Fellini’s other Award-winning films truly deserved their recognition.

    You can sign on to your Netflix account now to stream I Vitelloni, La Strada, 8 ½ or Amarcord.


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