Why Fellini's films speak to the pope

La Strada may be almost 60 years old, but Federico Fellini’s masterpiece is in the news. In an interview published late last week, Pope Francis called La Strada his favorite film.

Pope Francis waves to a child as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican September 18, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Some might have expected a more church-friendly movie, like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City — which Fellini c0-wrote — about a priest helping the Italian Resistance fight Nazi occupiers during World War Two. While he also mentions it, the pontiff’s favorite choice crystallizes his embrace of the fallible and the marginalized.

Consistent with his refusal to speak out against traditional hot-button topics like abortion, contraception and homosexuality, Pope Francis reveals in this movie selection a humanism that links him to the Italian director of such other classics as 8 1/2, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and Amarcord.

Fellini was never the darling of either clerics or ideologues. Indeed, when La Strada was shown at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, it was attacked by Marxist critics for lacking a political vision. The story was more of a fable, anchored in the character of Gelsomina.

This wide-eyed waif — played by Giulietta Masina, the director’s wife — follows the itinerant circus strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn), despite his brutish treatment of her. When he places a man’s hat on this diminutive, uneducated woman, he makes her a Chaplinesque figure against a neorealist landscape of poverty. But like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp,” her moments of comedy are inseparable from tragedy, particularly toward the film’s end.

Clown makeup adds to Masina’s spectacular poignancy, and later an oversized coat completes the unforgettable image. As the tightrope walker known as “The Fool” (played by Richard Basehart) affectionately says to Gelsomina, “Are you sure you’re a woman? You look more like an artichoke.”

Fellini was more concerned with the individual than with politics. As he once said, “our trouble, as modern human beings, is loneliness … No public celebration or political symphony can hope to be rid of it.”

Consequently, his movies needed little “translation.” They were celebrated in the United States — where La Strada was the first recipient of the Foreign Language Film Oscar.

The director was bemused by the American reaction to his movie and its female star. “When I was in the States with her after La Strada,” he recalled, “people didn’t know whether to smile at her or kiss the hem of her garment. They saw her as someone halfway between St. Rita and Mickey Mouse. … Even Walt Disney wanted to make an animated cartoon about Gelsomina.”

La Strada reflects Fellini’s love of spectacle. When he ran away from home at age 10, he joined a circus. Later, he worked as a comic strip illustrator before marrying Masina. But the movie is perhaps equally informed by personal heartbreak: Their son died in 1944, a few weeks after he was born.

It is unclear when the pope saw La Strada. Born in Argentina, he would have been a teenager when it was first released. “I identify with this movie, in which there is an implicit reference to St. Francis,” he recalls. “I also believe that I watched all of the Italian movies with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi when I was between 10 and 12 years old. Another film that I loved is Rome, Open City. I owe my film culture especially to my parents, who used to take us to the movies quite often.”

In referring to his namesake, the pontiff brings to mind the Franciscan quality of compassion, a non-judgmental rather than dogmatic attitude toward human beings.

“I see the holiness,” he said, “in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity.”

Given that the interview articulates Pope Francis’ vision for an inclusive church, La Strada suggests a vivid shape in the form of a big circus tent. In elevating Fellini’s film, the head of the Catholic Church expresses his solidarity with the female underdog.

Perhaps this pope loves a sad clown, a fool and even a sinner like Zampano as much as a saint.