Cannes Classics 2020: Federico Fellini’s La strada, The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the concept of 'existential time'
This is the centenary year of Federico Fellini’s birth, and film festivals like Berlinale and Cannes have been programming the legendary director’s work.
This is the centenary year of Federico Fellini’s birth, and film festivals have been programming the legendary director’s work. The Berlinale screened the relatively obscure Il Bidone. (I wrote about it here.) And now, La strada (1956) — not just one of the most famous of Fellini’s films, but one of the most famous art-house films of all time — will be screened as part of Cannes Classics 2020. The Cannes Film Festival cancelled its physical edition due to the coronavirus pandemic, so this year’s selection of Classics will be showcased at the Lumière Festival in Lyon (October 10-18) and the Rencontres Cinématographiques of Cannes (November 23-26).
In case you haven’t seen La strada, it’s about a strongman named Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) who exhibits his strength at circuses and fairs. His most famous routine is to wrap a thick iron chain around his torso, and snap it by expanding his chest. Of course, he hypes up the act to his audience: “To do this, I must fill my lungs with air like a tire. A vein might burst and make me spit blood. Once, in Milan, a 260-pound man lost his eyesight doing this. The optic nerve has to do all the work, and when you’ve lost your eyesight, it’s all over. Any sensitive members of the audience may want to look away.”
But he needs a partner to balance things out: a woman who can play the drum and clown around and collect money from the watchers. And so he buys Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) from her mother and whisks her away. What happens between them as they tour the countryside is the “story” of La strada — though if you’re not an art-house type of movie watcher, you might simply shrug your shoulders and say that nothing really happens. It’s this “nothing” I want to talk about eventually, though first, let’s look at the overall arc (the “something”) of the narrative: aka, what the whole film is about, more or less.
There are two key passages that clue us in. First, when a clown and tightrope walker called The Fool (Richard Baseheart) tells Gelsomina that everything in life — even the pebble he picks up — has a purpose. “No, I don’t know what this pebble’s purpose is. But it must have one. Because if this pebble has no purpose, then everything is pointless.” A few scenes later, a nun tells Gelsomina that they change convents every two years, so that they don’t get too attached to worldly things. “You grow fond of where you live, even of a plant. You risk forgetting your most important attachment, which is to God.”
So if you wanted to break the film down along the lines of motive and meaning, then you could say that the title (which is Italian for “the road”) refers to the road of life, which takes us from one place/situation to the next. We are all wanderers, like the nun, like Gelsomina and Zampanò. The point — again, if you wanted to nail one down — is to have some purpose, like that pebble. Of course, none of this is presented like a vulgar, preachy moral-science lesson. But you can summarise the film’s “purpose”, so to speak, as being something along these lines, as it “wanders” through its running time.
So what is Gelsomina’s purpose? I suppose, in today’s terms, she’d be called a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The term, coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, after observing Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown (2005), refers to a woman who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” You could argue that Gelsomina fulfills at least one part of this definition. The cruel and lustful Zampanò can hardly be described as “sensitive” or “brooding”, but by the end, he softens. He grows a heart inside that chest he wraps an iron chain around every day. He shows he cares. He weeps. And all of this happens because of Gelsomina.
If Anthony Quinn is perfectly cast as Zampanò — he’s strong, he projects cruelty — then Giulietta Masina is equally perfect. In Making a Film (Fare un film), Fellini wrote (about La strada) that he had only a confused feeling at first, a tone that lurked. It made him melancholy and gave him a “diffused sense of guilt”, like a shadow hanging over him. This feeling suggested two people who stay together, although it will be fatal, and they don’t know why. “But once this feeling crystallised, the story came easily...” And what crystallised this feeling? It was his leading actress. “She’s singularly able to express astonishment, dismay, frenetic happiness, the comic sombreness of a clown.”
This quote reappears in a 1991 interview of the filmmaker by the Italian writer and art historian Toni Maraini, and this interview is useful to understand another way to watch a film like La strada. So far, we looked at the “something” of the narrative. Now, let’s look at the “... but nothing really happens” part.
Maraini proposes the concept of “existential time” in Fellini’s films — as opposed to the “clock time” we know from the real world, which is a historical, straight, linear sequence of facts and chronologies. Fellini’s reply is practically a summation of the feel of “Euro art-house cinema”, which — back in the days it was making itself known, and even today — is so different from feel of the “serious”, auteur-driven cinema made in the US, like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane or Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It’s a more diffuse feel, harder to grab a hold of. It can feel like “nothing”, while even detractors of the abovementioned American films will concede that something is happening in them.
Fellini says, “Unfortunately, because of our goal-oriented training, we Westerners have a vision of ourselves living through a continuous timeline that requires steps, changes, conclusions, and a goal one must reach.” I can’t say why he includes himself in this category, but what he’s saying is that “time” in his cinema is the present, the now, the moment that’s up there on screen, a moment that we can savour and experience without necessarily linking it to a “goal”. In other words, the moment doesn’t have to “mean” something. Gelsomina or Zampanò or that nun or that pebble don’t have to “mean” something. La strada doesn’t have to “mean” something. You can simply bask in it, experiencing every second as it unfolds.
This is why art-house films are so polarising, and yet, so energising to talk about. Do you want the two-odd hours you spend on a movie to add up to something? Or is the moment-to-moment experience enough? Loosely speaking, this is what “existential time” is. If “real time” is the time the clock shows and “subjective time” is the time we feel (like we’d say, “I had such a good time on my vacation that a month flew by like a day”), then existential time is what lies in front of us, what we do now. In cinema, existential time is felt in things like how long a shot is held, or what the timeframe of the story is. It’s why Andrei Tarkovsky likened filmmaking to “sculpting in time”.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
All images from Twitter.
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