The Fool: I am ignorant, but I read books. You won’t believe it, everything is useful… this pebble for instance.
Gelsomina: Which one?
The Fool: Anyone. It is useful.
Gelsomina: What for?
The Fool: For… I don’t know. If I knew I’d be the Almighty, who knows all. When you are born and when you die… Who knows? I don’t know for what this pebble is useful but it must be useful. For if it’s useless, everything is useless. So are the stars!
In the interview given by Pope Francis with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the Holy Father identified La Strada as “the movie that [he] perhaps loved the most.” Though not definitively pertaining to faith and morals, I thought the recommendation authoritative enough to merit a viewing.
At first I was confronted by a natural hurdle to appreciation: The film, like some of the Sergio Leone westerns (e. g., The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), was filmed with the actors speaking both English and Italian, and the dubbed track overlaid only later using entirely different voices. The result was tantamount to the Lina Lamont effect in Singing in the Rain, with mouth and voice operating in entirely different registers. Once I settled in, though, I was floored by the way the film conveyed a highly personal and providential understanding of Christian vocation. I must admit, I didn’t pick up the implicit reference to St. Francis that the Holy Father mentions, but I did find a theology of Christian existence that I think bears pondering.
Fellini’s first point is that our lives are charged with purpose. In what may seem like the most aimless or meaningless of circumstances, God draws the soul sweetly and strongly. In La Strada, the main character, Gelsomina, is sold by her mother to a traveling performer named Zampano. Gelsomina serves as his assistant, passing the hat, playing instruments, and clowning a bit, but she is frequently abused by this debauched and lecherous man. Her experience is one of almost complete rejection, but in the witness of another carnie, the self-proclaimed Fool (a high wire artist), she finds the vocabulary for what she’s always suspected. Life does have meaning and this reality touches even the inglorious substance of her own life. In the conversation cited above, the Fool, a man constantly confronted by the terrifying prospect of his own impending death, speaks with conviction about our place in the world. His words are a simple but beautiful protestation of faith in God’s Providence:
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? (Matt. 6:30)
Fellini’s second, related, point is that this experience of purpose is not a mere cosmic force or impersonal presence, but comes to us in a truly human way. For Gelsomina, this discovery comes about in conversation with a young religious sister whom she and Zampano meet by chance on the road. She and the sister speak about following their “men,” and how relocation demands of them detachment from all but the object of their love. The conversation brings about a transformation in Gelsomina. Whereas previously she had tried to flee from the ruthless Zampano, she now recognizes her place as the only one fit and “called” to love him. In what follows, she is faithful to this inspiration.
In the remainder of the movie, Gelsomina’s conviction proves to be incredibly powerful, working beyond the limits of her own life and eventually effecting the result she had hoped for. The effects, though tragic and pervaded by a deep sense of melancholy, are truly transformative. While vocation for some in the film proves fatal, the whole narrative redounds to the wonderment of the viewer and the praise of the one who “orders all things sweetly” (cf. Wisdom 8:1).
And so, Fellini has captured something profoundly true and meaningful. The Christian life is joyously purposeful, and personally so, as we become implicated in the web of God’s delicate plan. While our own particular perspective may not be comprehensive enough to grasp the trajectory of his guidance, through faith (or, in this case, an artistic depiction) we can discern the inexorable pull of his gracious dealings, bearing us up ceaselessly unto our end.
Image: Francesco Guardi, Carnival Thursday on the Piazzetta