The road of magical neo-realism is a lopsided one, the joke is a cosmic allegory brought to a harsh Laurel and Hardy sketch: "Che faccia buffa che hai!" Seaside views bookend Federico Fellini’s breakthrough fable, the peasant girl who "just came out a little strange" is named Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) and sold off to Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a loutish saltimbanque who suggests a troglodyte Pulcinella. The mismatched couple is a natural for a muscleman and clown act, he faces a paltry audience with his solitary trick (chains snapped by "steel lungs") while she provides the off-key drum roll in black bowler and oversized coat. An air of quotidian enchantment hangs over the Italian countryside, where a rowdy wedding banquet outdoors gives way to a mysterious glimpse of an unsmiling boy deep within a convent’s ward. Later, street activity shifts rapidly from the sudden appearance of a trio of uniformed musicians to a surging religious procession to a tightrope act, where Il Matto (Richard Basehart) makes his entrance. In the rubble of a departing Roman circus, between the moon and the pebble, a vagabond philosophy is laid bare: "You may not believe it, but everything in this world has a purpose." Memories of Griffith, Vigo and Harry Langdon abound in Fellini’s famed tragicommedia, the archetypal protagonists repeatedly meet and part like the chafing heads of a fanciful chimera. The manhandled naïf and the lumbering brute aboard the motorcycle-wagon comprise the central condition (cf. Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel), an eternal tangle of elfin spirit and lumpish body until the quizzical trickster with glued-on angelic wings teases life one time too many. Throughout, Nino Rota’s melody embodies the parable’s plaintive unrest, variously hummed, played on a tiny fiddle, and blown on a forlorn cornet before it comes crashing down during the palooka’s flash of epiphanic horror. Quite the patch of pathos, a voyage about obvious and hidden beauty, a turning point for an artist increasingly beguiled by private mythologies. Eastwood (Bronco Billy) and Allen (Sweet and Lowdown) and Gray (The Immigrant) have their own versions. Cinematography by Otello Martelli. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce