The Human Soul in 3 parts: Federico Fellini’s “La Strada”

Gelsomina in “La Strada”

Directed by  Federico Fellini from his own screenplay. Co-written with Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano. Starring Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart. Music by Nino Rota.

“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
Ernest Becker

Behind the mask of civility, the polite pleasantries and feigned smiles of everyday living, we at our very core are afraid. We call this fear different names. Some describe it as the “unknown.” Others call it “death.” Others call it a religious or ethnic group that is not their own. Others, the ones we call mad or crazy, fear imaginary voices or paranoid threats.  It is not a question of whether human beings are afraid, but where one centers their basic anxiety.

This anxiety has its purpose. Its existence served our first ancestors well on the plains of Africa or fields of Asia as a survival mechanism. It was a constant alarm of the unknown dangers of the wild, whether it was a roaming band of hyenas or a predatory tiger out for prey.

But in the modern world, this anxiety has lost much of its purpose. Survival is mostly a given these days. Unless we are killed by an unforeseen calamity or disease, most of us will live well into our 70s. But yet our anxiety never leaves us. It is a part of our innate survival instincts. At our very core, we do not want to die. And we suffer because of it. Our minds become cloaked in fear.

In my work in the mental health field,  I observe daily how people cope with the intrinsic anxiety of living. The different ways to cope are too numerous to list, but here are few: the control freaks, the brutes, the solitary people, the depressives, the drug addicts or alcoholics, the person who keeps busy always so they will never have a moment alone to think… everyone has their own particular ways of expressing or coping with this very human feeling. Often this way of coping is what we call a “personality.”

Right now as I write this, I am thinking about one young woman I work with who has a strong personality. She has had your garden variety traumatic childhood in that her mother was a drug addict and mentally ill. This young woman herself is mentally ill, suffering from bouts of extreme mania and depression. She is prone to physical violence at the drop of the hat; and when she isn’t violent, she can be brutally angry and dismissive.

It is easy to dismiss this young woman simply as “crazy.” It is another thing to understand her suffering. Her anger and violence is ultimately a protective instinct, the only way to ward of her basic anxiety, the only was she has learned to survive up to this date. And when those defenses fail her, what I have found left over is a vulnerable, incredibly frightened person who can’t make sense of her situation.

I have observed my own “personality” in depth as well. Instead of outward bouts of anger or aggression like the young woman, I have a tendency to internalize and brood. Even when my heart is breaking, I put on a happy face because there is a certain shame and self-hatred I feel at those moments. Depression can easily set in, and I feel overwhelmed. And it is there where I want to run to my addictions, which become ways to manage my anxiety.  

That I am aware of my own tendencies does not change them. They are my hardwire settings, and it is what I am challenged with every day. The best I can do is bring awareness to them and try to act just a little bit differently every day.

I thought about the anxiety of living as I rewatched Federico Fellini’s great neorealist classic, “La Strada.” (Who knew it was the new pope’s favorite movie?) The story is a simple one. A tiny, simpleton woman, Gelsomina, (Giulietta Masina), is sold by her mother for 10,000 lira to a physically imposing man named Zampano (Anthony Quinn). Zampano earns his living as a traveling showman who breaks chains with his pectoral muscles as a feat of strength. Zampano feeds, houses and teaches Gelsomina to play the trumpet.

Zampano is a brutal, violent man. He beats Gelsomina when she does not play the drums exactly the way he wants. And he rapes her at will as well. But he doesn’t stay faithful to Gelsomina but runs off with other women at the drop of a hat. Everything about him is unkind and hard. I imagined he was treated in a very similar way as a child.

Along the way they meet a tightrope walker, simply named The Fool (Richard Basehart). Zampano takes himself very seriously, and when the Fool meets him, he can’t help but mock Zampano mercilessly. The Fool after all is a fool. He sees comedy and farce where others see depression and tragedy.

The movie’s 3 main characters- Gelsomina, Zampano and The Fool– are allegorical, each representing 3 distinct parts of the human soul and how each of these parts copes with their basic human anxiety. Gelsomina personifies innocence, a gentle, clownish female Charlie Chaplin who treats people without guile. It says something that children are attracted to her Gelsomina and follow her wherever she goes. Gelsomina is the most similar character to myself. Instead of acting out, she internalizes her basic anxiety by suffering and brooding within. But it is rare she isn’t smiling and kind to others.

Even though Gelsomina is sold into servitude and beaten and raped by Zampano, she begins to love him. As the Fool tells her, everything has a purpose, even the tiniest pebble. Gelsomina’s purpose, she believes, is to love and care for Zampano. It is this loving and perhaps naive spirit that is crushed when Zampano murders the Fool in front of her. It causes her to go mad with grief. One of the more heartbreaking scenes in “La Strada” is Gelsomina whimpering after the murder, “The fool is hurt.” Those words are the intonations of not just lost idealism but of a soul that is forever lost and will never be the same again. In that way she is not so different from another gentle soul, Blanche DuBose, brutalized by another bestial man.   

The Fool personifies the absurdity of human existence. Here is a man that stands outside of the drama he witnesses  and mocks it to its face. It is his own way of coping with his basic anxiety. (In modern culture this role is often taken by the stand-up comedian.) Zampano in particular raises the Fool’s ire as he cannot help making fun of the brutal man, despite Zampano’s propensity for violence. The Fool sees something absurd in Zampano’s macho posturing and tendency to take himself very seriously. Like the child who keeps touching the flame until he gets burned, The Fool’s action eventually lead to his death. 

Zampano teaches Gelsomina to play the drums.

Zampano personifies the depraved and darkness of humanity. Here is a man whose every action is either anger or sexual. He feels no empathy for anyone around him, just as he feels no empathy for himself. He is not so different from the young woman I described above. He beats and bullies Gelsomina because she is an easy target: a simple, naive girl who he can dominate and control. And by dominating and controlling, it reassures his strength and confidence. In this way his anxiety is satiated. He, of course, hates the Fool because the Fool can see right through him and knows that he is a fraud.

But even though he acts like an animal through most of the movie, Fellini shows he is capable of love. In one remarkable scene, as Gelsomina plays her theme music on the trumpet, Zampano looks at her just briefly with a moment of vulnerability and love before returning to his anger. It is subtle but wonderful piece of acting by Anthony Quinn.

And later, after Zampano abandons the mad, grief-stricken Gelsomina, the movie pushes into the future. Zampano, obviously aged and slowing down, hears a woman humming Gelsomina’s theme music. Zampano asks where she learned that. The woman tells a story of a crazy woman who never spoke but played that tune on the trumpet. The poor thing died 5 years earlier, the woman says. Fellini cuts to later that night, and we see a drunken Zampano starting a fight with three men after dinner. He walks to the beach and looks out. It was the beach where he first met Gelsomina. Gelsomina’s theme music begins to play and Zampano collapses on the beach and begins to cry hysterically.

It is significant that Fellini ends the movie with Zampano and not Gelsomina. Most movies would divide the world into black and white where one person is the obvious hero and villain. But Fellini is going for something much greater and more complicated here. Here is Zampano at his lowest, realizing that the woman he loved has died because of his actions. It is the first time in the movie where he shows genuine humanity, the first time he has let go of control. It is his redemption, a moment showing his own fragility and vulnerability in the face of life’s anxiety. Fellini is asking us to not just have compassion for Gelsomina but this man, who for the last two hours has shown no kindness to anyone. And it works. I am always extremely moved by the end of “La Strada” in a way I am with few movies. In a sense, the audience understands Zampano will never be the same again.

“La Strada” may be Fellini’s greatest work in that it is his most humane and compassionate. It doesn’t have the grandiosity or epic scale of his later masterpieces “La Dolce Vita” or “8 1/2″ so it is easy to overlook. But the simplicity of its storytelling is a virtue, as it taps into our basic human psychology and collective consciousness in a way no other Fellini movies. And because of that, its insights into the human soul are deep and true.

(I would be remiss not to mention Nino Rota’s incredible score. Rota worked on all of Fellini’s movies and also composed the theme for “The Godfather.” He is one of the greatest movie composers of all time).

8 thoughts on “The Human Soul in 3 parts: Federico Fellini’s “La Strada”

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