Love through the lens of Fellini.
Fellini and Masina on the set of La Strada, 1954. Photo: Studio Patellani
Among the central occupations of Fellini’s work is what he wants from the women in his life. Near the end of 8½, his alter ego speaks of a kind of Ideal Woman: “She’s beautiful … young, yet ancient … child, yet already woman. Authentic, complete. It’s obvious she could be his salvation.” Between the breathy declaiming and 8½’s famous layers of metafiction, you get the idea that even Fellini sees this isn’t exactly a healthy attitude.
Still, throughout his work, the search for an ideal of womanhood is represented in a series of large and buxom temptresses: Anita Ekberg, Sandra Milo, Eddra Gale in an especially memorable dance sequence as La Saraghina. But pulling his films off the shelf one by one, my wife and I agreed the problem was most nearly solved, onscreen and in life, by his wife and best collaborator, the tiny and brilliant Guilietta Masina.
For any of this to make sense I’ll have to say a little about what Lola, the woman in my life, is like. To start, she’s French. She’s small and she likes to refer to herself as my little wife, but she’s solid too, and fit, with strong legs: in the WNFL she’d be a halfback. When she gets excited she bounces on her toes and hugs me around the waist, looking up at me. She’s far from graceless but she sometimes moves with a child’s gracelessness, like Masina—that physicality, impetuosity of expression and utterance, a mischievous delight in small wonders and small triumphs. On the other hand, when she has to enter or pass through a dark room, she stands for a moment at the threshold looking in with narrowed eyes. Anyway, I’m guessing the comparison to Masina will please her; she’s herself an actress, the kind whose outsize physical presence lends to rather than diminishes the subtlety of her performances. She comes from a family of film people, and all manner of moving image can transfix her: Tarkovsky, or Ozu, or Maya Deren. She sleeps deeply, dreams bodily, and uses cuddle as a transitive verb, one of the few early solecisms she’s done me the kindness of preserving. She cuddles me.
Maybe it’s all married people who wonder how anyone ever finds each other. Giulietta Masina met her husband in the role of Pallina, in a radio serial he’d written about newlyweds; he didn’t visit the studio, but based on the sound of her voice when the serial aired, Fellini invited her to lunch in a fancy district of Rome. This was early spring. She was enrolled at La Sapienza and she was accustomed to coffee dates with broke fellow students—she brought along extra money in case he came up short, and ordered nothing but minestrone, while Fellini himself ate ravioli and ham. It was 1943—the war, Fellini said later, “made everything more urgent”—and by October they were married, in a secret ceremony in her aunt’s apartment, where he was soon installed, hiding indoors in the daytime to avoid the ubiquitous German patrols rounding up boys his age for service or labor. Fellini was twenty-three and Masina was twenty-two. In Fellini’s estimation, “Giulietta was really older, because she was more mature and better educated. She came from a more sophisticated background.” Still, he called her Lo Spippolo: a small, tender thing.
My wife calls me pumpkin, a pet name she thought she invented the year we were married—that was 2011—in our best clothes at City Hall on a Tuesday. We had known each other for nine months. We sent my parents a picture-message from the chapel and took a taxi back to the restaurant where we’d met for our first date: we drank champagne all afternoon. Not long after, she moved in with me and started as a waitress in the restaurant where I’d been bartending for four years. It wasn’t so much that our lives were joined as that my life was joined, by her.
Gelsomina was the role that made Masina’s career, and La Strada was the film that made Fellini’s. Of all the parts he wrote for her, Fellini said, “the character of Gelsomina is the one I most based on the character of Giulietta.” It’s easy to take the claim the wrong way: Gelsomina is childlike to the point of deficiency. And some of her expressive habits are in fact based on pictures Fellini had seen of Masina at eight or ten years old. But it was the woman he shared his life with that inspired him: “As a person, she was still that sheltered girl who looked with awe at the mysteries of life … She was open to finding delights, her own nature remained young, innocent and trusting.”
I certainly understand the dangers of being infantilized. Now, in Paris, it hasn’t escaped my notice how on the rare occasions with Lola’s family that I speak up, I’m afforded the same patient and indulgent attention afforded to my brother-in-law’s seven-year-old daughter, Thea. Lola and I have never treated or regarded each other this way; we allow each other the full impatience that all adults deserve. Nonetheless, it’s true, in a sense: she came to me like a child. At that time, I was twenty-six, living in Brooklyn, elbow-deep in a draft of a novel—there was nothing I wanted less than to fall in love, especially not with a woman who had everything to learn, whose adventures in language I often reported to my friends with pride and delight. Not that I felt she’d ensnared me. It was simply that I knew, and resented, what parents must know the moment their children are born, and resent from time to time thereafter: that from now on I could want and seek things for myself but that for some reason outside my control I could only ever be happy if she was happy.
By the time we were married I didn’t even resent it so much. I spent my days writing, and she went out in the city, and came home to report what she’d found. On the J train over the bridge she turned backward in her seat to look at the river and the skyline. On the platform, she pointed out rats on the track with thrilled disgust. For a long time, for no apparent reason, she sent her text messages in all caps, which seemed to me a reasonable approximation of her accent and her enthusiasm. She rode the bus without complaint; she listened to unfashionable music; in a city that was starting to call its bartenders “mixologists,” she drank nothing but margaritas. She dragged me to all the New York institutions I’d stopped bothering about—museums and plays and Film Forum. Rooftop bars, loft parties. “With Giulietta,” Fellini said, “I entered a landscape in life which became my life, territory which without her I might never have discovered.” There was a sense I had then, and still have, that Lola was reinventing the world for me.
* * *
Fellini always wanted to make a live-action Pinocchio—he would have played Gepetto, Masina the marionette. When we first met, Lola sometimes worried that when her English improved and her accent faded, she would become more real to me, and less of a doll, and I’d lose interest. I assured her this was impossible, but it actually seemed like a sensible concern. A pretty good fix was moving to Paris.
I’ve always been amazed at Lola’s gumption in moving to New York alone at twenty-four, with nine hundred dollars in cash, and nothing else but the first name of a relative by marriage of the daughter of a friend of her mother’s. All the many commonplace things she’s done to amaze me have been bolstered by this origin story, but they’ve amazed me anyway. So I knew better than take it the wrong way when in our first weeks in Paris, everything I did made Lola’s heart swell. I’d find my way on the train to meet her someplace and she would beam, and hold my face and kiss me, at my not having gotten lost or killed. After a few weeks I began to insist on ordering for myself in restaurants: in line at bakeries I would practice under my breath and then when my turn came Lola would squeeze my hand. She takes pictures of me doing things like picking out produce. And it’s true that in these everyday things I’m utterly lost: I have to ask her what kind of shampoo to buy, how to tell which of the disgusting looking butchers in our neighborhood is not as disgusting as it looks, whether to tip the barber, how to deal with Paris’s terrifying old-world homeless, to say nothing of the prostitutes, to say nothing of the riot police you see everywhere—all manner of social protocol.
Around the time we first met, I told her I’d be thrilled if my French was ever half as good as her English was then. Now I’d settle for half again. I speak in bewildered eruptions. In social situations I become furious if she leaves me on my own and I have to explain to someone that I don’t really speak any French—but if she sticks by and does my talking for me, I start to feel like a domestic animal. At a wedding outside Paris, one lady actually started petting me, and fed me hors d’oeuvres.
Gelsomina may be Masina’s most famous role, but her best, for my money, is Cabiria. Fellini probably thought it would be impolitic to make too much of an affinity between his wife and a low-rent hooker—heart of gold notwithstanding—but of all the characters he wrote for her, Masina herself considered Cabiria to be the one she most resembled. Toward her customers, her fellow prostitutes and their pimps, toward the people who save her from drowning, Cabiria maintains what you could call a Mediterranean brassiness. But in flashes she’s irrepressible, as when she rounds a corner in a fancy neighborhood to find a dashing movie star having it out with his girlfriend; the girlfriend takes off, and the movie star brings Cabiria into a swanky night club, where a direct homage to the dance scene in City Lights ensues, a mambo in this case, and the fancy people at the bar who’ve been looking down their noses at her of course end up smiling in spite of themselves. Later, on a vaudeville stage, she insists she has no use for a husband: “I got everything I need,” she says. “That’s a fact.” But under hypnosis she reveals her simple secret wish to fall in love and be married. She picks imaginary flowers, and soon she’s made herself so vulnerable that the hypnotist loses his nerve and breaks the spell. It’s the finest scene in the movie, and when it’s over, the crowd that heckled her when she took the stage now cheers wildly and affectionately.
Precisely because she’s not an innocent, Cabiria reflects something childlike in the various audiences she never fails to win over, not least of all us on the other side of the screen, more than fifty years later. In Masina’s hands, Cabiria is, like everyone, a mess of conflicting impulses. In the movie star’s house, she’s one minute banging on the glass of his aviary and hollering at the exotic birds inside, and the next picking his shirt up off the floor; then she’s crying that her friends will never believe she spent a night at his house. A moment later she’s making him a plate off the cart he’s ordered up from the butler. Finally, his girlfriend shows up to reconcile and Cabiria finds herself hiding in the bathroom until morning with the plate she’s fixed him. She’s got a puppy in there to keep her company—it’s a nice touch of Fellini’s, throughout the film, that in moments of vulnerability there’s often a small animal of some sort on hand for Cabiria to care for.
Only an actress of Masina’s talent could bring these rapid transitions from mother to child so naturally; neither aspect of the character is ever wholly absent from the other. Look at her first appearance as Cabiria, in a single four-minute scene in the 1952 comedy The White Sheik: she shows up at the end of the movie when she finds Ivan, drunk and in despair, having spent the preceding seventy minutes of screen-time trying and failing to find his young wife. Cabiria makes it her business to console and distract him: she looks at his pictures and she listens to his story, and she all the while can’t help making a production out of eating the sugared almonds that have fallen from his pocket. When a carnival fire-breather happens by, she convinces him to perform for Ivan’s benefit. At just that moment, Cabiria’s more matronly friend leads Ivan away. Cabiria, though, delighted now by the show she’s commissioned, scarcely notices. “Again,” she keeps saying. “Again!”
Alberto Sordi, who played the White Sheik of the title, knew Fellini when he arrived in Rome. “Federico remained a little boy,” he said. “He arrived from Rimini, very provincial, and he found Giulietta. She took him to her home and gave life to that poor boy … He needed taking care of.” Through the many famous ups and downs of their long marriage, Masina helped Fellini match his socks. She wrapped him in towels when he got out of the tub. She remembered meeting him for the first time, at lunch in Rome: “I saw coming toward me a thin boy, with a black hat and trousers that were too short.” (“She wondered if my feet were wet,” he said, “so I wouldn’t catch a cold.”) For his part, on meeting her he remembered most of all his impression that she was tiny and in need of his protection. Fellini and Masina never had the chance to be parents: their only child died at just two weeks old, and as the result of complications from the birth Masina was unable to become pregnant again. “When you marry in your early twenties,” Fellini reflected, “you grow up together … You are not just lovers, husband and wife … Sometimes I was a father to Giulietta, and sometimes she was a mother to me.”
Which may just be another of marriage’s many unexpected features, exaggerated a little, maybe, in the case of foreigners in each other’s respective homelands. “We can all pretend to be cynical and scheming,” someone tells Cabiria. “But when we’re faced with purity and innocence, the cynical mask drops off, and all that is best in us reawakens.”
Then of course he robs her blind. It’s easy with these things to get carried away.
Chris Knapp lives in Paris, and also sometimes Brooklyn, with his wife. He’s recently completed a novel.
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