Film Review: La Strada

A still of the film Gelsomina (Masina) plays a trumpet tune to keep Zampano’s attention (Quinn) as he tries to sleep.

LA STRADA (1954)

Directed by Federico Fellini, Written by Federico Fellini, Tulio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano

Occasionally, you see the sort of keystone performance when watching a classic you’ve missed that illuminates something about the technique of actors you’ve known for years. Giuletta Masina, here playing a woman who believes herself to be an idiot, betrays her character’s true intelligence with a level of emotional nuance I cannot ascribe to earlier films. Many credit some of these nuances to Chaplin, but her interpretation must be credited in the discussion of actresses like Meryl Streep, Audrey Tatou, and Elisabeth Moss.

The film is named “La Strada,” for the road which its leads find themselves traveling without a heading. The circus strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) buys Masina’s Gelsomina from her mother on a postwar Italian coastline. He will refer to her as his wife and make her work in his performances, in which he demonstrates his great pectoral muscles and lung capacity; she will develop her own skills in comedy, music, and dance along the way.

There is a deep intellectual satisfaction to the kind of film Federico Fellini has created with La Strada. For the film is simultaneously a Neorealist Italian melodrama on poverty, a psychological study of a man who cannot handle his own violence and consumption, a morality tale questioning what one does when they feel desperate and taunted, and a feminist smackdown of the patriarchy. Its characters simultaneously exist as their own agents and reflections of the psychology of its stars, and the dreamlike nature of Fellini’s later 8 1/2 already exists in the symbology of its supporting cast.

Each thematic element comes to a head in the character of Il Mato, a would-be circus artist played by Richard Basehart. His character is really cruel, psychologically toying with anyone he happens to engage in conversation. He sets the two leads on opposite trajectories, and the falsehood of his nature is everyone’s downfall.

It is no surprise to say this is a great film; it exists as a hallmark of foreign cinema. Yet Ebert, who champions La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, may have set this film back by taking it too literally. We are told that Gelsomina has “turned out strange,” but he assumes this to mean she is in some way retarded. As I suggested at the beginning, I think Gelsomina is instead a very complex character, one who has little place in the world of poverty and vagabondism that its characters populate, but not a character who is truly as useless as she’d like to believe.

Perhaps my boldest claim? Zampano, who is credited as having a revelation at the end of the film, has almost no revelation at all. He, I believe, is still the same pitiful, misanthropic man he began the film portraying; he simply has taken steps too far one or two too many times, and now, staring at the carnage and abyss of his past, he is overwhelmed. This interpretation captures reality and my imagination.

5/5

Film Review: The Straight Story

An aerial shot, taken from The Straight Story.

The Straight Story, 1999

Directed by David Lynch, Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney

The opening credits offer what might be the most pure lullaby to a Lynch fan the world has ever encountered; Badalamenti’s score plays like the white lodge version of Laura Palmer’s theme. After credits in an all-too familiar font, we see a small town bathed in sunlight; as much as we are reminded of the compromise of Twin Peaks, we find a purity in The Straight Story. Where Twin Peaks is a world in which pretension has obscured happiness, The Straight Story exists in a world wholly apart; it boldly claims that there is, in fact, good in this world. Continue reading

Film Review: The Pool

A still from Venkatesh prunes dead leaves for Nani.

The Pool (2007)

Written and Directed by Chris Miller

“Don’t sit so close to the screen or you’ll strain your eyes.” Using this just-distant sort of metaphor, The Pool constantly considers how those who dream will be hurt the moment they look too closely at those dreams, and what happens when we give up on those moments. The poor boy wants to swim in a rich man’s pool and decides to work for him until he can find a way. He watches them from afar until he gets hired, and then he looks at them through the front door only to see that they’re having an argument. The “rich” man is sad; his “sexy” daughter is depressed. She reads books about foreign lands that will “screw your head up,” but reading too much will “strain your eyes” too.

She won’t eat samosas, but she will eat cake. We cite “The Gift of the Magi,” minus the irony. Indian boys throw rocks at trees for mangoes and watch American wrestling because the director does not seem to know what Indian youth do for fun.

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Film Review: Wild at Heart

A still from the film Wild At Heart.

Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) take a respite from their highway to hell.

Wild At Heart, 1990

Written and Directed by David Lynch

There’s something small that Lynch does better than many other writers, and I think it’s a lynchpin to his work. Two people have a moment of relative quiet, in which one is carrying an anxious trauma. It is the bubbling point of a secret, the ones that expose how American romantics internalize dismissing reality to maintain the status quo which created it. Finally, the other no longer allows their behavior. It’s a moment where one character calmly explains to the other that they, with whatever decency they may carry, will listen to their problem and that they will find a way to figure it out together.

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Film Review: Listen Up Philip

A still from Listen Up Philip.

Jason Schwartzman as the titular Philip, oozing the charisma of that guy who won’t stop talking about your fine arts discussion when you accidentally find yourself trapped in a conversation at a party.

Listen Up Philip, 2014

Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry

“I don’t find you charming. You are just like him, and I hope you take responsibility for yourself before you hurt the people who you love.”

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Film Review: The Assassination of Jesse James By The Robert Coward Ford

A still from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Jesse James (Brad Pitt) looks with frustration upon the young, optimistic Robert Ford (Casey Affleck.)

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Robert Coward Ford, 2007

Directed and Written by Andrew Dominik, co-written by Rob Hansen

We are expected to praise a Western just for having a heart and a brain, as though the song the balladeer concludes the film busking is not just a good song, but would be deeply insightful were it to understand that the coward was sad too.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a moderately well-acted and quite well-shot melodrama in the west with bursts of great, whip-smart violence that say more than the interminable, cliché-ridden script and fairly unoriginal production style. For the violence screams that anyone could do what these men are doing; they miss repeatedly, they grapple their own intense fears, and the winner in a shoot is just the luckier man at the end of a gun. The violence is not played for legend, and that is the film’s purpose.

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