But in other ways, La Strada bugs me a bit. One way is its depiction of a woman, even one who’s mentally underdeveloped, faithfully sticking by the man who abuses her. Granted, Gelsomina makes one unsuccessful attempt to escape Zampanò, and her innocence makes his brutishness all the more apparent. And Fellini obviously isn’t advocating spousal abuse. So, this issue isn’t enough to repel me from the film.
However, another facet of the film also bothers me whenever I watch it: I think that Richard Basehart was miscast as Il Matto — the Fool.
|Richard Basehart in ‘He Walked by Night’ (1948)|
The role of the Fool in La Strada cries out for a performer with a comic on-screen presence. As an actor, Basehart can call upon many traits, but comedic warmth isn’t one of them. The incongruity of the performer to the part is compounded by the choice of the voice actor who dubs Basehart in the Italian-language version of the film. Where Basehart speaks with a moderately deep voice that one would expect from a man of his sturdy bearing and full-grown appearance, the voice synchronized with his lips in La Strada is a high-pitched near-falsetto. To anyone familiar with Basehart’s speech from his other roles, the speaking voice of the Fool is a vexatious distraction. But more than that, Basehart’s solid physicality clashes with the slightness of the Fool’s vocalization. It’s as though the filmmakers tried to compensate for the on-screen actor’s serious demeanor with an ill-fitting comic voice on the soundtrack.
|Richard Basehart and Giulietta Masina in ‘La Strada’ (1954)|
Of course, proposing to recast a canonical film like La Strada is as heretical to many movie buffs as proposing to recast Citizen Kane (1941) or any other cinema classic. I appreciate these film aficionados respecting movie history as it now stands, but they can rest assured that I have no intention of sneaking into the vaults and replacing La Strada’s footage of Basehart with substitute footage of my own.
I’m merely posing a foolish question, and here is my foolish answer: Roberto Benigni.
I can already hear some readers gagging on their garganelli as they read that last sentence. And I can understand. But I’m not saying that Fellini should have picked comic-actor Benigni over Basehart for the role of the Fool at the time the film was being made. When La Strada was released in September 1954, Benigni was one month away from turning two-years old, and back then, I understand, he didn’t quite have his comedic chops down. I’m merely imagining what a vintage film might have been like if one of today’s talents had been able to fill one of yesterday’s roles. Indulge me for a moment.
Now, like a number of other critics, I agree that Benigni is — to put it mildly — not the most nuanced of actors. For instance, I think that his Academy Award for Best Actor in Life Is Beautiful (La Vita è bella, 1997) was undeserved. That film surprisingly pulls off the unlikely conceit of a Jewish father (Benigni) in a Nazi concentration camp convincing his young son that their imprisonment is only a game, but the Italian comedian delivers a one-note performance in a role that calls for a wide dramatic range. I believe that the statuette was awarded more for the writer-director-star’s offbeat treatment of the Holocaust than for his emotional depth. This particular Oscar can only be rationalized in that this apparently ever-optimistic character in this horrific situation was embodied by Benigni’s singular comic persona.
However, if he had been able to travel back in time and play the part of the Fool in La Strada, Benigni’s modest acting skills would have been compensated by the unique comedic qualities he could have brought to the role. Where Basehart’s solid corporeality weighs down the Fool’s fluttering body, Benigni’s buoyant physicality is imbued with a lightness that billows above the more serious characters in his films. In Benigni’s rubbery face and nonchalant disposition, I can see the character who dispassionately defies death on a tightrope, the character who temerariously taunts the furious Zampanò in one scene and then casually asks for his help changing a tire when they next meet.
|Anthony Quinn as Zampanò in ‘La Strada’|
Also, had Benigni played the Fool, Zampanò’s manslaughter of such a joyful and gentle soul would have compounded the strongman’s brutish behavior even more, as though he had killed Harry Langdon or Harpo Marx — as though he had killed a true double for Gelsomina. (Perhaps such a spiritual kinship to wife Giulietta Masina, who plays Gelsomina, is why Fellini chose Benigni to star in the director’s final film, The Voice of the Moon [La Voce della luna, 1990].) As it stands, Zampanò’s murder of the serial killer from He Walked by Night just isn’t as effective.
|Alberto Sordi in ‘An American in Rome’ (1954)|
But you might say to me, “Benigni was still in diapers when La Strada was made. Why even bother imagining such far-fetched transhistorical casting?” Okay, fair point. But I would at least like to see an actor with more comic warmth as the Fool. If a would-be time traveler is too preposterous for you, how about a comedic contemporary of La Strada like Alberto Sordi? After all, he was the star of Fellini’s two previous pictures: The White Sheik (Lo Sceicco bianco, 1952) and I Vitelloni (1953). Which leads me to wonder: Did Fellini offer Sordi the part of La Strada’s Fool? And if the director did, would the movie-star Sordi have accepted this supporting role? As Il Matto himself might say, foolish questions.
For all I know, Fellini’s casting of Basehart as La Strada’s Fool is a stroke of cinematic genius that I’m simply too dense to see. But my foolish imaginings remind me that movie viewers aren’t just passive spectators of the mass or classic images in front of us. In a manner of speaking, we’re co-creators of the way these visions and stories inhabit and interact with our minds, as the phenomenon of fan fiction can show. And — who knows? — maybe our daydreams might eventually intervene in and impact the concrete world beyond our mind’s eye. In that case, maybe my imaginings aren’t so foolish after all.
Scenes from ‘La Strada’