La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, and post-war Italy

I’ve watched two Fellini films in the last few weeks, both released after the twilight of Italian neo-realism (usually placed at 1952), and although it was neo-realism that sought to portray the difficulties of daily life in post-war Italy, I think these two films, La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, released in 1953 and 1957 respectively, reveal a fantastically contrasting image of the Italy of the 50s.

A short mention should be made here of Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and muse, who plays the female protagonist absolutely perfectly in both films. In some ways, it’s a shame her fame has been overshadowed by that of her husband, and as her intense performances in both films prove, she was a wonderful dramatic and comic actress. Her often-given label, ‘the female Chaplin’, is especially apparent in La Strada and is no exaggeration. She was rewarded for her performance in Nights of Cabiria with the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1957.

La Strada tells the story of Gelsomina, a peasant girl living in poverty in southern Italy. At the beginning of the film she is sold by her mother to a gruff and brutal itinerant entertainer and strong-man called Zampano, who is played perfectly, albeit with an out of synch mouth (he was dubbed into Italian) by Anthony Quinn. Gelsomina and Zampano proceed to make their living driving around the countryside on a spluttering motorcycle, stopping off in towns and villages to amaze the locals with Zampano’s act, which involves breaking a chain wrapped around his chest, and with humorous clown skits.

La Strada is a bleak film, and the southern Italian setting exemplifies this. At the time, the southern economy was overwhelmingly agricultural, and unemployment was high. The places we see in the film are mostly run-down villages or small towns, and the people in them are tired and ragged peasants, or those, like Zampano and Gelsomina who are either itinerant performers of labourers. The people in the villages seem naively and thoroughly impressed with  the spectacles they witness in the film; the spectacle of Zampano’s strong-man act or the circus, and in one excellent scene a large and dramatic religious procession through a town that creates such a fervour that Gelsomina is literally swept up with the crowds of people running through the streets. The film begins with an act of desperate necessity, Gelsomina’s mother sells her to Zampano for 10,000 lire, possibly never to see her again, and the general desperation and bleakness of the film is summed up in Zampano’s cruelty towards Gelsomina.

The bleakness of the film is further amplified by the setting, the vast and empty plains, the wintry expanse, the bare trees, the snow, and the poverty that Zampano and Gelsomina experience on a daily basis, either sleeping in their draughty cart which is pulled on the back of the motorbike, or sleeping outside in the cold, and in the few coins they earn being displayed after Zampano’s act in a tattered old hat. Additionally, the reality of daily life is so desperate that when Gelsomina attempts to escape from Zampano, she may be free of him, but what confronts her is a poverty that lacks even the tiny reassurance of the hat with a few coins in it to buy some food. The only hint the films gives of freedom beyond her daily life is embodied in Il Matto, or, The Clown, another entertainer and tightrope walker, played by Richard Basehart, who urges Gelsomina to leave Zampano, and imparts to her his philosophy that everybody has a purpose in life. She refuses to leave, and Il Matto is promptly beaten to death by Zampano.

This bleakness contrasts very well with Nights of Cabiria, made three years later in 1957. The life of the two protagonists of La Strada, as itinerant workers (although, unlike most, as entertainers) was very much true of many young people in southern Italy in the post-war period. Coming from peasant families and unable to find work in the south, they made their way to the cities and large industrial centres. The post-war period was a time of large-scale migration into the cities, and industry enjoyed a never-ending supply of labour from the countryside, leading to prolonged economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s. From the beginning of Nights of Cabiria we see signs of this rapid migration, the main character, Cabiria, is walking in a suburb of Rome, and has her purse stolen and is pushed into a river. A group of boys sunbathing nearby dive in to save her, shouting that they have to stop her before she is swept downstream to the sewage plant, an indication of industry. Lining the river are large building estates consisting of high-rise towers, hurriedly built in the post-war period, and often completely unsafely, to house the large number of industrial workers flowing into the cities. The area is rundown and in some ways looks like a slightly more primitive (it predates it by around twenty years) version of the poverty-stricken Naples suburb of Scampia, whose dilapidated public housing blocks were made infamous by Matteo Garrone’s 2005 film Gomorrah, and Roberto Saviano’s groundbreaking book on which the film is based exposing the Neopolitan mafia.

After being dragged from the river, Cabiria hurries home, to her own neighbourhood, a soon to be suburb on the edge of Rome consisting of a series of small stone buildings dotted around. Everything in her neighbourhood exemplifies the haphazard speed at which these estates were raised to house this influx from the south. However, unlike a peasant’s house, she has ‘running electricity, water and bottled gas’, and has ‘nearly paid off her mortgage’, and is at pains to make this clear to anyone who’ll listen during the course of the film. After going through all the expensive suits and shirts that she has brought her now ex-boyfriend (mainly, because he was the one who pushed her in the river), she takes them outside and burns them. In the evening, she heads into the centre of Rome to ply her trade as a prostitute. While there, we see the street-savvy prostitutes arguing with each other or anyone else who happens to be in their way, contrasting absolutely with the naive and quiet peasants that mostly make up La Strada.

The contrast in wealth of the characters of the two films is obvious, compared to the ragged, even pre-1900 poverty we see in La Strada, Cabiria frequents expensive-looking cocktail bars, wears fur coats, gets driven around in a Cadillac, hangs out with boys wearing American (or what they perceive to be American) suits, with thickly pomaded hairstyles in imitation of American film stars, and, without even going to the point of exaggeration, is taken home by a famous matinée idol to drink champagne and eat lobster, and gushing at one point that she has ‘seen all of his movies’, a signal of the by that time growing trend of celebrity worship of American culture. Both Cabiria and Gelsomina could be seen to occupy a fairly similar position on the social chain, but Cabiria’s experiences and opportunities far outweigh those of Gelsomina, showing the lure of the city for tens of thousands of young Italians in the post-war period who emigrated from the countryside.

A youth idolisation of the popular culture of America is apparent throughout, and reminded me of the character of Pierre Capponi in Wu Ming’s 2002 novel ’54, part of which is an excellent portrayal of youth culture in post-war Bologna, and his tireless and flawless impersonations and worship of Cary Grant, in both mannerisms and dress. We are reminded of the cultural influence America exerts over post-war Italy several times. By being the main force behind the physical and social reconstruction of Italy after the war, along with the political conditions this came with, American cultural life began to imitated to the letter by a generation of young Italians, from styles of dancing and the popularity of jazz, evidenced in Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 book and the 1999 film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley, set in mid-50s Italy, to the veneration of American film stars.

The personalities of Gelsomina and Cabiria contrast as much as the setting of the films, and it is testament to Giulietta Masina’s skill as an actress that she portrayed them both so well. Cabiria is loud-mouthed, street smart, and seems to know how to get ahead, and has a definitely positive attitude towards her life and the ability to pick herself up, even though misfortune befalls her several times, whereas Gelsomina possesses no philosophy in life, is quiet, naive, wide-eyed, lost, and melancholy, which turns to prolonged depression after the death of Il Matto. At the end of La Strada, the only way Gelsomina can escape from Zampano is by him leaving her by a roadside while she is asleep, and as he later finds out in a scene fast forwarded some years, her life without him is unremarkable, and she has essentially wasted away and died. In Nights of Cabiria, Cabiria gets married, but, while walking in a forest on her honeymoon, she senses a repeat of the opening scene of the film, where her boyfriend pushes her in the river and steals her purse, and throws her purse at the feet of her new husband, who takes it and leaves. She collapses to the forest floor in tears, but, after some time, picks herself up and walks away. While she is walking back towards the town, she is met by a group of young people who are playing music and dancing, and the film fades out with them dancing around her as a smile draws across her face. On two occasions Cabiria is betrayed and abandoned by her lovers, and both times she picks herself up and is happy again. Gelsomina finds it impossible to leave Zampano, and when she is finally free of him, it is of his doing and she flounders without him. There is hope for Cabiria in the city, and her attitude embodies this, but for Gelsomina in the countryside there is only her fate.

Although technically outside the period of Italian neo-realism, the two films demonstrate perfectly the changing social make up of Italy in the post-war era, and the attitudes and aspirations of people in the two worlds of city and village at that time. The Rome of Nights of Cabiria shows the booming city enjoying the fruits of its economic prosperity, happy and at the forefront of Europe, and looking forwards both financially and culturally, and the other world of La Strada shows an archaic and backward south, seemingly halted in time, of desperate and ragged peasants, and the enduring Gelsomina and Zampano, roaming the wintry and bleak countryside on a motorcycle, getting a few coins in a hat here and there to buy food with before moving on to the next village. There is the possibility of a happy ending for Cabiria, but there is none for Gelsomina and Zampano except, perhaps, the lure of the city.


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