On The Road // Sulla Strada

8 February, 2011

What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke?

Last year, I forged a rather unexpected friendship with an older guy who comes into the bakery where I moonlight a few shifts each week. He’s easily over twice my age, with a head of spiky white hair and a gravely voice that is as textured as the weathered grooves on his face. Currently retired, he ran a comedy club or two in the 70s and 80s, wherein he discovered the likes of Larry David. He has a sharp wit and decisive views on entertainment—he has no qualms letting anyone know that he thinks the top-rated, Emmy award winning sitcom that his nephew produces is really not all that funny.

I see him around once or twice a month, and my coworkers know that when he comes in, I will be wholly engaged in conversation with him, discussing, most often, the latest arthouse movies at BAM, the Angelika, the Film Forum. We don’t aim to sound snobby, but we probably do.

About a year ago, he mentioned to me that he had recently transformed a room in his house into a real home theater, complete with projection system, full-size screen, blackout curtains and about ten comfy chairs. He told me that he wanted to begin a film club for a small group of friends, and cordially invited me to be a part of this elite club. I was flattered. Various set-backs pushed our first meeting from September all the way to January, and the first official screening was held a few weeks ago, on a bitterly cold Friday night.

Once I arrived to his well-appointed townhouse, I was warmly greeted by a small group of middle-aged men and women, and introduced as “the only one who works in the film industry and thus legitimizes our group.” I didn’t quite know what to say in response; I likely just blushed. I then learned that this was not just any old film club. The plan was to exclusively explore Italian cinema from the 1960’s, that rich blend of story and style, ripe with fantasy and metaphors. Our host distributed lists upon lists of Italian films made in the 60s, and told us each to select one that we wanted to see. We’d all chip in about $5 per movie, and gather to watch them. The lists were exhaustive, and I was embarrassed to say that only a small percentage of the films sounded familiar to me.

Finally, after deferring my film choice to be sent via email the next day, we sat down to watch our premiere film: Fellini’s La Strada, his 1954 road-movie of sorts, and only his 4th feature film as director. I mumbled that I thought I had seen selected scenes from the movie in college, but I doubted myself – could it be that I had never seen this classic?

The film began, and I was soon forced to acknowledge that no, I had never seen this classic. Moments into the film, I was bewitched by Giulietta Masina’s elastic and expressive face, the way one move of her eyebrows spoke volumes more than the entirety of some present-day films. I quickly overcame the distraction of the dialogue we heard and the movement of the actors’ mouths never quite lining up, and indulged myself in poor Gelsomina’s tale as the ball to Anthony Quinn’s Zampanó’s chain.

We wrapped up the movie, each of us entranced, with a conversation about the film, how we interpreted it, and what we took away from it. Is it the ultimate love story, or the ultimate hate story? Did Zampanó love Gelsomina? If so, did he know it? Just how many screws did Gelsomina have loose in her head?

To me, the film provided ample food-for-thought, such that my long walk home through the frigid Brooklyn streets seemed to pass rather quickly. How many relationships do we engage in that manage to blur the line between healthy and unhealthy, clingy or repugnant, codependent or destructive? And even if the cracks within our relationships are more subtle, does that make them any more excusable? How do we define abuse, and how do we define delusional? I can think of loved ones in long-term relationships that have plenty of commitment but no affection—is that excusable? Does this year’s powerful film Blue Valentine recall some of the same struggles to survive in a loveless marriage that La Strada does?

I think any one who has seen La Strada will remember fondly Richard Basehart’s il “Matto,” The Fool, and his bumbling courtship of Gelsomina, his earnestness starkly contrasted against Zampanó’s indifference, and the delight that Gelsomina’s face betrays when she sees him. I also remember the smile he’s forced to slap on when Gelsomina makes her choice between the two men, and how bravely he saves face by facilitating her decision. At that point, we are as understanding and confused by Gelsomina’s loyalty to Zampanó as we’ll ever be. For me, The Fool’s fate was not forgotten; I knew the catlike tightrope walker would land on his feet. I couldn’t say the same about our main duo.

The Fool represents the opportunities that we are afraid to take, the ones that sometimes whoosh by us in a car, sometimes stop to talk to us, and on the rarest of occasions, extend us a hand to go with. I’ve certainly come to understand that those opportunities, the ones that seem so appealing but are equally as terrifying, are intoxicating and rare. We can acknowledge the opportunity, say “thanks, but no thanks,” and live forever speculating, or we can, with necessary trepidation, take that step forward because to know is sometimes better than to wonder.

The Fool is the curious cat. Gelsomina, by denying him, settled back into the comfortable misery she had come to rely on for survival. Yet, once The Fool meets his destiny, thanks to Gelsomina’s wayward “beloved,” three lives are irrevocably changed. And so fate manages to find a way to quell our curiosity, one tragic way or another.

Right now, I feel a bit like Gelsomina—when I recently tried to seize an opportunity, my plan was squelched. Was it providence, or good luck? Or bad luck? It’s plain to see that my intentions meant little to whatever, or whoever, was really dealing my cards that night. Thus, I can’t help but wonder if waiting around the corner is chance, again, just like The Fool changing his tire. What to do at that moment? Extend a hand, wait for a hand to be extended to me, or simply continue walking? Like Gelsomina, I have no interest in second chances. But I hope that I haven’t jinxed circumstance, and, unlike the pertinacious Gelsomina, can ultimately walk away from that one-day encounter with an appreciation for closure and the pride of knowing that the decisions I’ve made have made me stronger for them, no matter which strada I had to take to get to this place.

Next week’s film: Divorce, Italian Style. My blogging senses are tingling in anticipation.