La Strada and Nights of Cabiria; two astounding films from Federico Fellini, two ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ Academy Award winners and two heartfelt protagonists brought to life by the captivating Giulietta Masina. With actor and director also entwined as husband and wife, the results of the couple’s cinematic collaboration are staggering. Masina and Fellini marries 11 years before making La Strada in 1954 and would ultimately spend fifty years together until the passing of Fellini a day after their golden wedding anniversary. Masina would pass away less than six months later. Nicknamed “Lo Spippolo” by her husband (meaning a small thing that inspires tenderness) Masina was evidently Fellini’s muse – bringing out this inspired tenderness in audiences, when appearing in many of his films. It is the two films previously mentioned that perfectly capture what it was that made Masina such a striking screen presence and an actor who captured a time and moment in cinema; often playing naive and abused women within the neo-realism body of the director’s work. In a similar style to Buster Keaton decades before, Masina would use her eyes and facial expressions to tremendous effect – a performer who perhaps would have been right at home in the more directly expressive silent era. This nostalgic approach to her craft perfectly contradicts the modern approach Felinni takes from behind the lens. This satisfying juxtaposition is also visible within the characters and narratives of both La Strada and Nights of Cabirira.
The first is the tale of a young eccentric who is sold by her family into an abusive marriage with a travelling strong-man who performs his circus acts on the side of the road to passers by. Masina’s daydreaming Gelsomina finds herself forced into a world of pavement entertainment which proves to be a lonely one. Our cruelty treated heroine takes life in her stride, sometimes oblivious to the disgraceful behaviour of the strong man who, at one point, flirts with and propositions a young woman right in front of her. Masina uses her wide eyes and sheepish smile to capture the innocence and credulous nature of her character. In the perhaps lesser known Nights of Cabiria, Masina’s Cabiria is a careworn prostitute who finds herself wandering the sordid streets of Rome, encountering a string of characters who leave her all the more used and broken. Even in this, a much more cynical role, Masina still fuels her character with hope, providing the strength to carry on in a bitter world which repeatedly chews her up and spits her out. Masina is a master of vulnerability; using her talent to create and deliver well-rounded characters who are overwhelmed by loneliness, isolated through circumstance and dealt an altogether rotten hand. There is always a glimmer of optimism in the eyes of her protagonists who are surrounded by the most pessimistic of situations. I’m stunned that more hasn’t been written by Masina and her grace and intensity which heightened the work of Fellini hugely. In these tragic black and white worlds, Masina shines through, her fragility and reverie providing the colour within these bleak, de-saturated stories.
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