Why Fellini’s films speak to the pope

By Annette Insdorf
September 23, 2013

La Strada may be almost 60 years old, but Federico Fellini’s masterpiece is in the news. In an interview published late last week, Pope Francis called La Strada his favorite film.

Some might have expected a more church-friendly movie, like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City — which Fellini co-wrote — about a priest helping the Italian Resistance fight Nazi occupiers during World War Two. While he also mentions it, the pontiff’s favorite choice crystallizes his embrace of the fallible and the marginalized.

Consistent with his refusal to speak out against traditional hot-button topics like abortion, contraception and homosexuality, Pope Francis reveals in this movie selection a humanism that links him to the Italian director of such other classics as 8 1/2, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and Amarcord.

Fellini was never the darling of either clerics or ideologues. Indeed, when La Strada was shown at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, it was attacked by Marxist critics for lacking a political vision.  The story was more of a fable, anchored in the character of Gelsomina.

This wide-eyed waif — played by Giulietta Masina, the director’s wife — follows the itinerant circus strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn), despite his brutish treatment of her. When he places a man’s hat on this diminutive, uneducated woman, he makes her a Chaplinesque figure against a neorealist landscape of poverty. But like Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp,” her moments of comedy are inseparable from tragedy, particularly toward the film’s end.

Clown makeup adds to Masina’s spectacular poignancy, and later an oversized coat completes the unforgettable image. As the tightrope walker known as “The Fool” (played by Richard Basehart) affectionately says to Gelsomina, “Are you sure you’re a woman?  You look more like an artichoke.”

Fellini was more concerned with the individual than with politics. As he once said, “our trouble, as modern human beings, is loneliness … No public celebration or political symphony can hope to be rid of it.”

Consequently, his movies needed little “translation.” They were celebrated in the United States — where La Strada was the first recipient of the Foreign Language Film Oscar.

The director was bemused by the American reaction to his movie and its female star. ”When I was in the States with her after La Strada,” he recalled, “people didn’t know whether to smile at her or kiss the hem of her garment. They saw her as someone halfway between St. Rita and Mickey Mouse. … Even Walt Disney wanted to make an animated cartoon about Gelsomina.”

La Strada reflects Fellini’s love of spectacle.  When he ran away from home at age 10, he joined a circus. Later, he worked as a comic strip illustrator before marrying Masina. But the movie is perhaps equally informed by personal heartbreak: Their son died in 1944, a few weeks after he was born.

It is unclear when the pope saw La Strada. Born in Argentina, he would have been a teenager when it was first released.  “I identify with this movie, in which there is an implicit reference to St. Francis,” he recalls. “I also believe that I watched all of the Italian movies with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi when I was between 10 and 12 years old. Another film that I loved is Rome, Open City. I owe my film culture especially to my parents, who used to take us to the movies quite often.”

In referring to his namesake, the pontiff brings to mind the Franciscan quality of compassion, a non-judgmental rather than dogmatic attitude toward human beings.

“I see the holiness,” he said, “in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity.”

Given that the interview articulates Pope Francis’ vision for an inclusive church, La Strada suggests a vivid shape in the form of a big circus tent.  In elevating Fellini’s film, the head of the Catholic Church expresses his solidarity with the female underdog.

Perhaps this pope loves a sad clown, a fool and even a sinner like Zampano as much as a saint.


PHOTO (Top): Pope Francis waves to a child as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican, September 18, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

PHOTO (Insert 1): Giulietta Masina, who co-starred in La Strada, is pictured here in a scene from that film. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

PHOTO (Insert 2): Film director Federico Fellini, during an Italian television interview in January 1992. REUTERS/Archive

7 comments

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Mille grazie! To hear that a Pope is fond of Fellini’s films is, to me, surprising and heartening.

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

Amazing article with a wealth of information about Italian Cinema and Fellini. Yes it does make sense that this Pope’s favorite film is La Strada. Sad to me an entire generation does not even know this film. Cinema in sad state now compared to these great films.

Posted by sitagirl | Report as abusive

Heavenly Grace…

Posted by phillrr | Report as abusive

Pope Francis is the most compassionate and the most intelligent Pope in history.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

Dear Annette,

Thank you so much for your article, which I enjoyed and brought memories of
my teenage years.
When “La Strada” was released in Buenos Aires, the Pope was 18 and I was 11.
It was a huge hit. As many of the Italian films that were shown in the
50′s and 60′s. Fellini, as well as Visconti, Vittorio de Sica, and
Antonioni and Ettore Scola later on, were always big idols. Maybe their
cinema was seen as an alternative to American films, to which people had
been watching since they were born. Half of the Argentine population is of
Italian descent (as Bergoglio, the Pope,) which probably influenced, too.
French films from the “nouvelle vague” as well as British films (Lindsay
Anderson, Tony Richardson, as well as Joseph Losey in his British period)
were also greatly appreciated. Ingmar Bergman said he first started hearing
he had spectators outside Sweden was after showing one his early films in
Buenos Aires and Montevideo (way before “Wild Strawberries”.) Yes, there
was a time in which European film directors were very much appreciated here,
especially Fellini, who was loved by many.

Love,
Eduardo

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Pope Francis is definitely a man of his time, savoring his experiences and his observations of all that has gone on about him.
Coupled with the intellectual discipline of the Jesuits and his own personal grace, the result is an extraordinary Pope, neither hermetic, nor quarantined, nor isolated, a rara avis in Vatican history.
However, this should not be confused with a feel-good, California cool, sitar ‘n oud blurry amiability.
He is tough, conservative, and very very smart.
Yes, there will be changes, some of them in unexpected places; but don’t expect too much. The Holy Father is still the Servant of the Servants of God and Al Piano di Sopra al Piano di Potto –the Piazza San Pietro version of Upstairs Downstairs — remains an uneven fight, with those Below Stairs have some 20 centuries of experience in hitting Below the Papal Fascia (Belt).

Posted by MossyMorse1118 | Report as abusive

This Pope just continues to impress me. This dude is totally cool. Caring about what is right and actually talking to the people. The fact that he’s also a fan of Fellini just added more cool points from me.

Posted by thevoid99 | Report as abusive