The Circus Sands

La Strada (1954)

La Strada | artwork by Dani Manning
illustration by Dani Manning

I trusted in something like magic before. I slipped through a childhood full of faith in what I could draw or pray to or conceive of. What I invented could be as real as what already existed—a monster was obviously there; a miracle could always occur; a tale had a presence. I could take this as given evidence of mystery flashing through life. But I grew into a consciousness that made religious belief feel limited and a self-consciousness that dismantled into pieces the art forms I attempted as craft. The exception that endured was the medium of movies. The spell didn’t wear off. It helped that the word magic had already been generously applied here by the makers and the goers. I wouldn’t doubt what expanded out of the grainy light of film. It travelled with me.

From there, the world could be porous enough for apparitions.

A change in the dark rises with me out of my seat once a movie has ended, and rearranges the scenery on my way home.

In a lull of transition, I can picture a small band playing buoyant music and marching in a single-file line. In a show of strength, I measure the tell of vulnerability. My young daughter leaps from a giggle to a pout in her own miniature sad-clown act. I roll out my own abstract end and beginning when I arrive at a beach. 

I sense a reminder like a tap on the shoulder that there are many roads and also I am already on one.

I might have ascribed meaning to these scattered fits of beauty without a received visual language for them. Maybe, with an alternative taken, I could have experienced such moments as a higher kind of grace. Instead, I like to believe they trace back to Federico Fellini. Winnowing this idea down further, this magic springs from his 1954 film La Strada.

I first watched the film young enough to cross the literal with the figurative, and old enough to call it a fairy tale. I catch the illusion hiding in plain view, and, despite its allegorical metaphysics, see the profoundly basic idea that humans need one another, that we are not meant to be alone. Only later I realize that, in positing this truth, Fellini has performed the larger miracle of providing this essential human connection. Through the very act of watching this film, I am not alone.

For the artist, La Strada marks Fellini’s transcendence from the neo-realism of his fellow countrymen and cohorts to the teeming surrealism that became his signature. At the end of shooting, Fellini allegedly suffered a nervous breakdown. Whatever truth there is to that story, we know that the film broke its own heart by asking the question “Why was I born to this world?”

And we know that La Strada’s influence went wide and its resonance still sounds. Pope Francis has mentioned La Strada as one of his favorite films, and correlated its themes to St. Francis of Assisi. Bob Dylan, in his Biograph (1985) liner notes, cited La Strada as having inspired his song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the lyrics recalling its imagery, and, in passages, seeming to telegraph its viewing, as Dylan invites the listener to “hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme / To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind / I wouldn’t pay it any mind / It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.” He takes us “out to the windy beach” and is “circled by the circus sands.” Within the sanctuaries of movies, La Strada would circle everywhere through the second half of the 20th century and upward. This continued as recent to this writing as Alejandro Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (2022), a film that walked out on various limbs of Fellini-tended dreamscapes. The year prior, a more pragmatic Martin Scorsese wrote a save-our-cinema essay for the March 2021 issue of Harper’s, where he reiterated La Strada’s turning point. 

Before seeing it, I read about La Strada from a book tipped from my parents’ bookshelf. William Bayer’s The Great Movies (1973) included the film as one of the top five in his category of “Cinema of Personal Expression.” I took his word—and the black and white image of a downtrodden travelling circus—for it.

The words tended to fail. In the decades after its release, anyone expounding on the film risked sounding like the know-it-all in the ticket line in Annie Hall (1977). I sigh and cringe for larger reasons at the mention of that film’s director, but, in the spirit of If only life were like the movies, it’s worth envisioning the original idea there, which was to use Fellini rather than Marshall McLuhan. The scene was written with Il Maestro himself breaking the fourth wall to interrupt the pontification. But Fellini couldn’t make it to New York. Perhaps the pedant had made some good points.

Perhaps we shouldn’t strain for answers. La Strada’s archetypes and symbols are simpler than all of this. And the magic still flickers at the edges of the frames. So the best response might be to avoid stating the obvious. We know how it makes us feel. We’ll have this figured out if we don’t speak of the journey. But we’re blessed and cursed with the need to know what La Strada means. The allegory is both too foreign and too familiar. 

Interpretations of the film’s trinity can go deep. The three principal characters may represent Earth-Air-Water or Past-Present-Future or simply the Holy Trinity of the Catholic tradition of the film’s setting. But Pauline Kael offers the kind of decoder that can lead to other theories: she proffers that the players in this parable are the Body, the Mind, and the Spirit. 

Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) is a brutal, thoughtless strongman, a product of these neo-realist surroundings: impoverished post-war Italy, still hollowed out by fascism. Over its roads, Zampanò drives a sputtering motorcycle fitted with his caravan living space. He performs a lackluster routine in his itinerant circus act, in which he breaks a chain tied around his chest. The same woeful, triumphant puff of his lungs. The same chains every time that he’ll never completely release from, the mortal coil he won’t escape. He’ll only ever peer upward at the end of the road, seeming to follow the arc of something very specific passing across the night sky, and then crumple into tears, clutching the sand. Zampanò consumes, takes, betrays, and destroys. He is, to Kael’s point, the Body, the Animal. The instrument he plays in his act is the drum.

Il Matto, or the Fool (Richard Basehart), is his counter. He is a tightrope walker. He is always kidding, even with a teardrop stage-painted on his cheek. We see the Fool’s shadow first against a town’s buildings at night before we see him directly. He performs his clever act in the air above the rapt street crowds, setting up a table and eating a meal on his tightrope before faking a fall. He pretends to be celestial, wearing wings and a tin halo for a hat. He creates, questions, thinks about his death, and upsets the drive of the narrative with his jokes. He’s met the strongman before and can only ever tease him, explaining, “I don’t know why…An urge just comes over me.” Zampanò, in turn, can’t help but kill him. But before his end, the Fool has actual wisdom to impart. He delivers the fable’s central message about each person’s worth, telling the key despondent hallowed traveller to whom he’s linked, “I don’t know what this pebble’s purpose is, but it must have one. Because if this pebble has no purpose, then everything is pointless, even the stars.” The Fool symbolizes the Mind, the Artist. The instrument he plays is a comically tiny violin.

These two figures could belong in another Italian neo-realist setting, one of Rossellini or De Sica. Zampanò and the Fool are grounded enough for these stark moral worlds. It is the third character, however, who elevates the film beyond the historical, socio-political, or didactic. A pure being that belongs only to Fellini. 

We enter another plane by grace of Gelsomina.

Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is the Spirit, the Soul. She will play the trumpet.

“She just came out a little strange,” the mother explains at the story’s outset, trying to excuse her peculiar daughter, who she has just sold to the strongman. Gelsomina stands beside her, blinking. She goes from sorrow over leaving home to a hopeful warmth at the prospect of life on the road. The emotions register fully on her face, as they always will. They radiate across the screen, changing the entire mood of the picture in the turns of her pantomimes, as she leaps from dejection to delight, weeping to dancing, anguish to joy. She waves a triumphant farewell to her family, swooping her shabby cape over her face. Her exuberance at learning to perform drops into horror when Zampanò beats her with a switch, the sensation against the skin of her leg previously unimaginable. She mimics the pose of a tree to make a little girl laugh; she plants tomato seeds, and suggests waiting in the barren plot of land to watch them grow; she coaxes bugs out of the dirt along the road, and beams with pride as she blows them from her hand.

Gelsomina is both childlike and elderly at once, quick and slow, and neither fully feminine nor masculine. Or, as the Fool says, “Are you sure you are a woman? You look more like an artichoke.” 

Children gravitate to her. In the very first shot of the film, we hear her young siblings calling out her name and scampering toward her as she combs the beach. Through the rest of the story—in the street, at public gatherings, at the circus—children appear from nowhere, fascinated. She meets a kindred curious presence in Oswaldo (played by an uncredited child actor), a bedridden boy inside the home of a raucous country wedding. He and Gelsomina briefly lock eyes, transfixed by one another, before a nun shoos her away. But a hint of magic has entered their fleeting moment. They know each other, too. That she is dazzled by humanity makes her all the more distraught when she experiences its cruelty, here the daily abuse and violation from Zampanò. Yet she falls forever back to compassion. She will show the strongman a tenderness, in particular when given the choice to leave him. She will stay. And, by the end, she will only be able to repeat the phrase “The Fool is hurt,” her gaze cast down toward the snow. 

She exists both outside and inside the story, the glowing heart of the movie and an accompanying part of our viewing experience as she marvels at it with us. The most overt of this meta-aspect comes when she sings the music that has been the beautiful score of Nino Rota, composer for most of Fellini’s work. The La Strada score has enough saccharine swells and lighter changes for one of the fairy-dusted Disney films coming out of the US in the 1950s (Walt Disney himself floated the idea of a Gelsomina cartoon during Fellini and Masina’s visit to his new magic park). But the music, like the film’s overall thrust, remains a devastating elegy that reflects what was then markedly European. Gelsomina says she heard this music on a day it rained, a moment we never saw or heard. So she sings its notes for us, breaching the fourth wall aurally as she calls back to the melody from the opening credits and then reentering the story. “Do you remember how beautiful it sounded?” she asks.  

She will hear the song again (diegetic this time) played by the Fool on his violin, a hint that he too might transcend the road, the beaten reality. He incorporates it into his act, teaching Gelsomina to interrupt him while playing the melody as a gag. Zampanò, in turn, only bothers to care about the music too late, when the tune is sung by a village woman hanging clothes, who delivers the news that fells him.

The conclusion arrives, for those of us listening just outside the story, that Gelsomina is, in fact, not an angel or a fairy but something more presently magical, a movie character lit upon the room we’re in, a wholly artistic creation, here to perform the trick of helping viewers understand that they too might have a meaningful role in the movie, this forlorn, beautiful road tale. While 8 1/2 (1963) was shot through with meta-fiction, its characters entwined with the performers of the film inside the film, La Strada provides the first and faint glimmer of something beyond the established confines of realism, the post-modernity to come. Most clearly from our current next-century perspective, Gelsomina is the progenitor surrealist entity dropped into the vérité, wandering through this war-ravaged desert from which Fellini would springboard into the stunning dreamland excess. She is the theatrical commedia dell’arte past and the alien future, the cosmic and the Chaplinesque-cinematic all wrapped into one. This is why none of the other characters—with the possible exception of the Fool with his comic intuition, and the children along the road with their active imaginations—understand who she is or why she’s here. 

It also is why Gelsomina is at her most radiant when she is performing, dancing, playing music, or genuflecting to an audience.

She dances like an engine conductor chugging down the road while the kids imitate her; as she follows the music of a sacred processional, she twirls in a full circle, smiling skyward; she bumps into the door frame exiting the circus tent when the Fool addresses her as “Madam”; she gazes up into the middle distance, as though toward an image cast in the air, when she’s asked to consider a possibility; she reacts to applause or compliments like she’s performed something heroic.

The Fool bids her farewell and skips away, singing her name to himself.

Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife from the beginning of his career through the rest of his life, bookended La Strada with her role as Cabiria. Her character first appeared briefly in Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952), and then as the titular star in Nights of Cabiria (1957). The role is that of a sex worker surviving on the seedy streets of Rome—a hardened, defiant contrast to Gelsomina, but with the optimism and golden heart persisting against the worst that the world of men throws at her. Cabiria gets a single dream encounter—hypnotized on a stage where she professes her true love for what is conjured—before the reality snaps back. The magic is only hinted at here. The full color reveries would come later. Masina reappeared as a housewife, Giuletta (no point by then in the actress having a different name from her part), coping with her husband’s infidelity through some of the most vivid surrealist images ever committed to film in Juliet of the Spirits (1965). 

For my own discovery, I jump to other Fellini films. I want more of the sea creature washed ashore and staring back at the partygoers in La Dolce Vita (1960). I watch a film greeting its own film in 8 1/2 as a culmination of images that, before Fellini, I didn’t realize could be shared among fellow conscious humans. From my childhood home a few months before leaving it, I watch the Oscar broadcast where Fellini ended his acceptance speech for his Honorary Award by imploring Masina to stop crying. He passes away several months later, Masina shortly after. 

Reality wasn’t as exalted. From the beginning, the director himself talked of his identification with the strongman of La Strada. In his work, he plays the Fool, the artist who can’t help stir trouble. Fellini raises the high-wire of his art to new heights with less attention paid to the ground. His sublime carnivals become more monstrous. His tropes broaden and don’t always age timelessly.

I don’t interpret Gelsomina as meta-fiction the first time, but I see how she shimmers beyond the story, an incandescence that transported her almost three-dimensionally.

I proceed to offer a general benefit of the doubt to pantomimes and artifice; I look, where I can, to save my own fools; I whimper at the sight of an itinerant circus in town, worry at weddings, and laugh more about mortality.

I sense more reminders like a tap on the shoulder that there are many roads and also I am already on one. 

I place a continual faith in physically moving forward, just up ahead.

Gelsomina’s despairing question of “Why was I born to this world?” is answered, for the realist’s world, by the Fool as he tells her that each pebble has a purpose. For the world of the cinema, it is answered by her existence in the film itself. She is the first real movie creation of her kind. Her showy gestures and melodrama and, as detractors have sometimes criticized, over-acting are present by design, deliberately not blending in with the surroundings, even as she provides the essential meaning to the realistic characters’ lives and to our fantastic moving picture. She has purpose because a singular visionary artist brought her. She is, as Fellini once famously defined film itself, light. This road would be pointless without her. 

We don’t need to check the title translation to know that it is life, this road. It is more precisely and personally for Fellini the road he’s taken of the artist, the entertainer, the conjurer, the filmmaker, these people who use some measure of magic to show us our human need for connection. Gelsomina happens to be the particular way this artist does it.  

We have the fortune to be able to share the circus-like wonder and travel out of body with this creation. We have the joy of realizing we are not alone in the sand.

The life we continue through after its creator has left. 

The light we attempt to absorb.

The repeating magic, as real as we can accept, and here still in motion.