I've had these two movies on DVR for quite a while now, recorded from Turner Classic Movies. I'm sure it's been over a year, and it may be two, because I think I recorded them not long after we subscribed to AT&T's Uverse service for Internet and TV. (The TV part is soon going to be cancelled; it works really well, but we don't watch anything but TCM, PBS, and football games, and they aren't worth the cost.) But I haven't watched them because...well, mainly because I didn't have any great desire to. I felt that I had some kind of duty to see them, because they're such well-known landmarks of cinema, but somehow I didn't think I would like them all that much. As with other classics that seem more admired than enjoyed, such as Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queen, I wanted to have seen them, but not especially to see them.
But then a couple of months ago came Pope Francis's interview in America in which he named exactly these two films as his favorites, or at least very high among his favorites. So the added motive of curiosity finally overcame my foot-dragging.
An added incentive for me to postpone seeing this one was that it's by Fellini, and after seeing his reputed masterpieces 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita, and Juliette of the Spirits I had decided that I don't really care that much for his work. I'd also seen Amarcord and Satyricon many years ago when they were released, liking the former and being indifferent-to-negative about the latter, but I don't remember them well enough to speculate about what I'd think of them now. So my expectations for La Strada were fairly low.
Somehow I had the idea that La Strada means The Street, and was expecting some kind of story of the urban proletariat. But it actually means The Road, and takes place mostly in rural and small towns. (And I must say in passing that it certainly makes rural Italy seem desolate.) It opens with a circus strong man, Zampano, negotiating with a peasant widow over what amounts to the purchase of one of her daughters. The girl, Gelsomina, is in some unspecified way not quite right mentally. Perhaps the old term "simple-minded" is appropriate. She's not very bright, but she's capable of learning to assist Zampano in his act. And she's simple: trusting, credulous, easily pleased, easily injured.
Zampano is rather a brute to her (and to everybody). In her misery she meets another circus performer known as The Fool, who is both a highwire artist and a clown. In the interview in America, Pope Francis asserts that there is an implicit reference to St. Francis in the film. I didn't see that--that is, I didn't see anything that struck me as an unmistakable reference to St. Francis, though obviously The Fool's title could be taken that way. But there is a scene between Gelsomina and The Fool which is very beautiful--the most moving thing I've seen in Fellini--and certainly has very strong Christian resonance.
I didn't really like La Strada all that much. It didn't often strike me as visually beautiful. And, unfortunately, the crucial character of Gelsomina was portrayed in a way that I found annoying. The actress, Giulietta Masina, was Fellini's wife, and also was the Juliette of Juliette and the Spirits. She got on my nerves in that movie, and in this one. I don't know how much of this is the fault of the actress and how much the director, but she is made to resemble and to behave very much like Harpo Marx--a female Harpo with straight hair. Her expressions are often exaggerated in just the way Harpo's are, and I had trouble taking her as a real character. In spite of that, there were moments when the pathos of her character overcame that problem, but I can easily imagine liking the film more if Gelsomina had been played differently.
The sound is dubbed, which is somewhat distracting, and although Anthony Quinn's performance as Zampano is visually effective, he can't get credit for the character's voice, which belongs to an Italian actor. I mean that the original soundtrack, in Italian, is dubbed, not that I was watching a dubbed English version. Apparently the limits of the technology available to Fellini required it, and the actors at times weren't even speaking their lines, just counting off a sequence of numbers roughly equal in length to the lines. (I learned that from Wikipedia, but if you haven't seen the film don't read too far at that link, as it contains a plot summary.)
Notwithstanding my cool reaction, I've found myself continuing to think about La Strada, and I may see it again sometime. It may be better than I first thought.
Rome: Open City
This movie about the Nazi occupation of Rome was made while the war was still in progress, immediately after Italy had been freed. Narratively, it's a pretty straightforward thriller involving a resistance group and its supporters. It has nothing of the feel of an "art" film; while both it and La Strada are described as "neo-realist," the term seems considerably more accurate for this one.
The story opens with the Nazis invading an apartment buildin in search of a resistance fighter, who escapes through a window and across rooftops. We soon become acquainted with those in his personal circle, especially his fiancee, Pina, played by Anna Magnini, and the parish priest, Don Pietro (reportedly based on a real priest), and with their various connections, voluntary and involuntary, to the resistance movement. There's no need to summarize any more of the plot; suffice to say that it's a convincing and powerful story. I had intended to watch it in two sessions, because I had other things that needed attention, but had to find out what was going to happen after that first hour or so.
The priest was to me the most interesting character. At first he seems an ordinary parish priest of the type you might expect to find in a movie: well-fed, a little prim, a little harsh with the sexton who serves him as a general sort of servant. I half-expected that he would be portrayed as a hypocrite, if not worse. But that is not the case at all. Not at all.
You can't see a movie like this without being struck not simply by the oppression and violence inflicted by the Nazis, but the moral corruption created by such brutal rule. The struggle to survive brings out the worst in too many people, and many who would have been quite decent under normal circumstances do despicable things in order to survive or to get a few luxuries.
This is the first of Rossellini's work I've seen. It's the first of a trilogy, and I'm interested now in seeing the other two.
Aside from their artistic merit and the simple human interest of the stories they tell, each of these movies is a keen affirmation of the good at work in circumstances of great difficulty, especially the virtues of love and courage. Love is foremost in La Strada, courage in Open City, but both are very important to each. And hope: both movies are grim, but nevertheless full of an elemental hope. What does it mean that the pope loves them so much? I think the implications are very good, and very encouraging.