The most absurd aspect of the human condition is our lack of perspective.
We only know what we know. And that makes for some ridiculous distortions.
For example, the average American grew up with more comfort, safety, and luxury than the greatest king of a few hundred years ago. And yet we aren’t any more grateful.
Meanwhile, there have been plenty of people in world history who were born with nothing and placed into terrible circumstances. And they aren’t any less happy. They are concerned with losing what little they have.
Humans are little different than dogs with an unkind owner. The mistreated dog is just as loyal as a dog that is treated with love and care. Because the bad owner is the only love he has ever known.
Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” is a bleak movie about a young woman who is essentially an abused dog.
When we meet Gelsomina (Giuletta Masina), her mom is selling her to a homeless street performer for 1000 lira. The mom tearfully apologizes … to the buyer … because Gelsomina is such an odd duck.
Gelsomina’s new owner is a dumb brute. Zampano (Anthony Quinn) owns a rickety old motorcycle and a large cart. He drives around the countryside, stopping in each town to perform for tips.
His performance is always the same. He boasts of his superhuman strength, wraps an iron chain around his upper torso, and breaks the chain with his pectoral muscles. Then he blows the tip money on wine.
Another, more talented, street performer relentlessly makes fun of Zampano for his lack of originality. He nicknames Zampano “trifle;” it drives the brute into a homicidal rage every time.
This is Gelsomina’s new life. And she kind of likes it. Her job is to wear clown makeup, introduce Zampano with some music, and make the audience laugh. And she’s pretty good at it.
The magic of “La Strada” is Giuletta Masina’s unique performance. She’s boyish and asexual. She’s simple at best and possibly developmentally challenged. Yet when she’s in front of a crowd, Gelsomina shines. She channels Charlie Chaplain and Harpo Marx. And it gives her a thrill.
Zampano is verbally and physically abusive to Gelsomina. But he’s the only family she has now. She won’t let him go.
There’s a telling scene where the two traveling performers stay over night at a convent. Gelsomina is treated as a valuable human for the first time in her life.
Here in comfortable America, most of us can’t imagine why someone would join a holy order. But Fellini makes it clear that becoming a nun was an enticing choice in sexist rural Italy. Nevertheless, Gelsomina waves goodbye to her new friends and goes off with Zampano.
Some audience members will be perplexed by her decision. Heck, she probably should have joined the Church just for a roof over her head and a consistent source of food. “La Strada” presents post-war rural Italy as destitute, desolate, and dirty.
In America, we expect there to be constant technological progress. Fellini shows that Italy had taken a step back in material comfort … from the Roman Empire, 1600 years earlier.
The poorest person reading this column has a richer life than the people in “La Strada.” If your significant other is not a mensch, at least he probably treats you better than Zampano. And yet many of us aren’t any happier or grateful than Gelsomina. Lack of perspective is a funny thing.