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Fellini’s ‘La Strada’ celebrates 70 years

 Fellini’s ‘La Strada’ celebrates 70 years  ING-018
03 May 2024

As a child and teenager, Pope Francis watched nearly all the films of Italian cinema dating from the neorealist era and beyond. He would visit the neighborhood cinema in Buenos Aires with his parents, where up to three films were shown in a row, or watch them during afternoons spent at his Grandma Rosa’s house. But of all these films, one in particular struck his soul, so much so that he has repeatedly cited it during his pontificate as a film from which to draw an almost evangelical lesson: “La Strada”.

Federico Fellini's 1954 masterpiece won an Oscar and starred Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn, and Richard Basehart.

“It has remained in my heart,” says Pope Francis in a brief video message, produced by Vatican Media on Thursday, 2 May, to mark the film’s 70th anniversary.

The film was projected at the opening of the study days that celebrate the anniversary of La Strada during “The Seventh Art — Cinema and Industry,” a festival in Rimini from May 2 to 5, organized by Confindustria Romagna and the University of Bologna — Department of Arts, in collaboration with the Municipality of Rimini and the Fellini Museum.

“As a boy, I watched many of Fellini’s films, but La Strada has stayed in my heart,” says the Pope in the video message. “The film begins with tears and ends with tears; it starts at the seashore and ends at the seashore. But above all, the scene with the fool and the pebble has stayed in my heart, which gives meaning to that girl's life.”

He was referring to the dialogue between “Il Matto,” a tightrope walker and violinist, and Gelsomina, a fragile girl who works with the rough and violent street performer Zampanò, enduring insults and abuse.

Pope Francis recalled two scenes from La Strada in the video message.

His first reference was to the final scene with the tears of the terrible Zampanò who, years later, returning to the same places where he had lived with Gelsomina, accidentally discovers that the girl has died. As he stands drunk by the sea, he comprehends for the first time his own smallness, his loneliness, and the vastness of the universe, and then bursts into tears.

The Pope also pointed to the scene of the “pebble,” when the fool explains to Gelsomina that everything in life has importance and meaning: “Everything in this world is useful for something. Here, take that pebble, for example,” says the tightrope walker.

“What is it for?” asks Gelsomina.

“It has a purpose... But how should I know? If I knew, do you know who I would be?” replies the character played by Basehart. “The Almighty, who knows everything: when you are born, when you die. And who can know that? No, I don’t know what this stone is for, but it must be for something. Because, if this is useless, then everything is useless: even the stars. And even you, you are also useful for something, with your artichoke head.”

Their exchange bears a profound message expressed in simple terms, as Pope Francis cited in a homily at Mass on Easter Sunday in 2017.

Speaking off-the-cuff to a crowded Saint Peter’s Square, the Pope said, “We too, little pebbles on the ground, in this land of pain, of tragedies, with faith in the Risen Christ, we have a purpose, amid so many calamities. The purpose of looking beyond, the purpose of saying: ‘Look, there is no wall; there is a horizon, there is life, there is joy, and there is the cross with this ambivalence. Look ahead, do not close yourself off. You, little pebble, have a purpose in life, because you are a pebble near that rock, that stone which the wickedness of sin has discarded.”

In that homily, Pope Francis made a clear citation of this cinematic masterpiece, which he has confessed many times to love, along with another often mentioned: Babette’s Feast by Gabriel Axel.

La Strada “is perhaps the film I loved the most. I identify a lot with that film, in which we find an implicit reference to St. Francis,” the Pope recounted in an interview with Msgr. Dario Viganò and published in the book The Gaze: Gateway to the Heart. Neorealism between Memory and Actuality (Effatà Publishing House).

“Fellini knew how to give an unprecedented light to the gaze on the least,” said Pope Francis in the interview. “In that film, the narrative about the least is exemplary and is an invitation to preserve their precious gaze on reality. I think of the words that Il Matto addresses to Gelsomina: ‘You little pebble, you have a sense in this life’.”

By Salvatore Cernuzio