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.