Friday, September 14, 2007

La Strada

I feel a certain obligation to kick off these little columns with some form of synopsis to the movie I'm going to be talking about. I wonder, though, if the benefits outweigh the downsides. On the one hand, a synopsis would help you understand what the hell I'm talking about, and it would get my brain started thinking about the material. On the other hand, trying to describe things is not something that comes naturally to me, and in fact tends to sap my energy, preventing me from getting to the point of the piece. But there again, perhaps I need practice synopsizing, certainly a potentially useful skill.

I suppose I have no choice but to do what feels right.

La Strada is about innocence, coercion, infatuation, disappointment, and wonder. Gelsomina, played by Giulietta Masina, is a wonderfully expressive audience proxy. When bad things happen to her, you know because she looks hurt, and her hurt look makes you feel hurt. When the world around her is exciting, you take joy in her excitement.

I learned from La Strada that a passive protagonist doesn't have to be a death sentence. Screenwriting books hate the passive protagonist. The very idea gives them chills. Your hero has to choose his fate - that's what makes him a hero! And it's true, most of the time, when you see the hero onscreen being led around by the nose, he's awkward, annoying, and unsympathetic.

Is it the persecution of Gelsomina that makes her so endearing? I suppose she does make choices, albeit choices made from weakness. She doesn't have to go with Zampano. And she does run away, and she is offered a new home, twice - once with the circus, once with the convent.

The Innocent is a strange and difficult archetype. Your manly hero is simple to construct. Make him very, very good at what he does, and then put him in a situation where he has to use talents he didn't know he had. North By Northwest - Kaplan is a skilled bullshit artist, and he uses that talent, but he also has to sneak around and climb on Mount Rushmore. Pulp Fiction - Vincent's a great hit man and a great dancer, but finds himself having to doctor Uma Thurman.

Everybody uses this. Competence is admirable, which creates sympathy, and being forced to learn new skills is frightening, which creates empathy.

And then there's Gelsomina. She's not particularly good at anything at all - much is made of Zampano abusively teaching her how to do her job. She sacrifices herself for her family, sort of, but she doesn't seem to have much of a conception of what exactly she's doing. It's not an admirable moral choice, just a hazy sort of wandering.

How the hell is she so adorable?

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