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Friday, June 12, 2020

#Fellini100 – The Sweetness and Genius of Giulietta Masina

Fellini and Masina on the set of "La Strada"
As open-hearted and sunny as Federico Fellini was dark and complex, they were perfect counterpoints during a half century of marriage and professional collaboration. 

Nicknamed a “female Chaplin” and described by Chaplin himself as the actress who moved him most, Giulietta Masina confronted the tragedy of her characters with an eternal innocence and enthusiasm that gave Italians hope in the most challenging of times. 

Born in 1921 in San Giorgio di Piano, a commune north of Bologna, Masina was the oldest of four children born to a father who was a music professor and violinist and a mother who was a grade-school teacher. Her parents sent her as a child to live in Rome with her widowed aunt while she attended school there. As Masina took an early interest in gymnastics, her aunt saw in her a passion for performing and encouraged her to pursue acting. So after high school, Masina attended Rome’s La Sapienza University where she was active in the theater program during the 1941-1942 school year. Among the productions was Johnann Ludwig Tieck’s “Puss in Boots.”

In 1943, Masina landed the female lead in “Terzoglio,” a radio show about the adventures of newlyweds Cico and Pallina. The scripts were written by Federico Fellini. Not only did she achieve popularity with the show, she married Fellini. The show lasted until 1947 and their marriage endured for half a century.

Masina as Cabiria
Masina’s first big screen role came in Alberto Lattuada’s 1948 “Senza pietà” (Without Pity). Her performance earned her a Nastro d'Argento (Silver Ribbon) by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists for Best Supporting Actress. Two years later, Fellini directed his first film, “Luci del varità” (Variety Lights) and cast Masina in the lead role for which she won her second Nastro d'Argento. Upon the success of that first collaboration, Masina was given a role in Fellini’s 1952 film “Lo Sceicco Bianco” (The White Sheik) starring Alberto Sordi. She played the role of Cabiria, a good-hearted prostitute, appearing in one scene. The character inspired her next collaboration with Fellini, the character Gelsomina in his 1954 “La Strada” and of course, Cabiria in the 1957 “Nights of Cabiria.” Both films won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

"At the Edge of the City"
Also in 1952, Masina had a part in Carlo Lizzani and Massimo Mida’s suspenseful, murder mystery, “Ai margini della metropoli” (At the Edge of the City). Masina plays Gina, the devoted wife of Mario (Michel Jourdin), an unemployed peasant accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Marcella. The layered, complex story and brilliantly written screenplay show a side of 1950s Rome that we rarely see in Post-WWII films, but sadly existed for the vast poverty-stricken population. This subject matter deals with the unspoken discrimination against those living in camps and land-shares who did not benefit from the post-war economic boom. A young, vibrant Massimo Girotti portrays a torn defense attorney who gets emotionally involved in the case, having a gut feeling that his client is innocent while the evidence continues to pile up against him. Gina goes through great lengths to track down the alleged witnesses and call them out on their false testimony. The entire film comes together in a spectacular final courtroom scene in which those wanting to lazily convict Mario are made to confront their prejudices. Masina gave a heartfelt, passionate performance that undoubtedly contributed to her rise in cinema during that decade.

Masina as Gelsomina
Fellini’s 1954 “La Strada” opens on a deserted beach as Gelsomina Di Costanzo (Giulietta Masina) is called by her young siblings to meet Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a burly side show performer who arrives to announce the death of her sister, Rosa, his former assistant. As Gelsomina’s mother cries, she offers to replace Rosa with Gelsomina, pleading, “She’ll do what she’s told. She just came out a little strange.” Zampanò agrees, giving the family 10,000 lira (about $10.00), two pounds of salami, a pound of cheese and two bottles of wine. Although Zampanò is not kind to Gelsomina, she becomes attached to him and is hurt by his meandering and womanizing. So she decides to leave and enjoys a carefree, intoxicated evening running around a piazza, watching a tightrope walker (Richard Basehart), whose eye she catches after the performance. Before long, Zampanò finds her and she is partnered with him again. The pair joins a circus where she runs into that tightrope performer who turns out to be an adversary of Zampanò. There’s a moving scene in which Gelsomina is presented with an opportunity to leave Zampanò but questions what good it would do because she doesn’t believe that she’s of use to anyone. She says that she is sick of living and questions why she was born. She decides to stay with Zampanò, convinced that it’s her purpose in life. He continues his destructive behavior, only appreciating Gelsomina after it’s too late. Fellini said that he drew inspiration from his wife of five years at the time, explaining, "I utilized the real Giulietta, but as I saw her. I was influenced by her childhood photographs, so elements of Gelsomina reflect a ten-year-old Giulietta." The film won the very first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. 

Watch this clip featuring Martin Scorsese talking about "La Strada"... (Beware of the spoilers in case you haven't seen the film yet.)

Masina had a small but poignant role in Fellini’s 1955 “Il Bidone” (The Swindlers) as Iris, the wife of Raul aka Picasso (Richard Basehart). Radiating the virtue and purity that Masina brings to all of her characters, Iris desperately urges her husband to cut ties with a crime ring that swindles already poor people out of their savings. She and Basehart had previously worked together on “La Strada,” and their ease in finding their natural chemistry transferred over to this film. They bring out a lightheartedness and simplicity in their characters, complimenting each other’s trait of innocence in the face of despair.

A scene from "Il Bidone"
Fellini and Masina’s next collaboration, the 1957 “Nights of Cabiria,” opens on the banks of a river in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome. A young couple, Cabiria (Masina) and Giorgio (Franco Fabrizi) are taking a leisurely walk when out of nowhere, Giorgio grabs her purse, pushes her into the water and runs away. Some kids hear her calls for help as the current is whisking her away. The kids manage to save her. As soon as she gains consciousness, without showing any gratitude, she frantically looks for Giorgio and runs home all the while believing that she just fell in and Giorgio got scared and ran away. After some tough love from her best friend, Wanda (Franca Marzi), and time alone to think and ponder what could have happened if those kids didn’t jump in after her, she wises up and burns all of his belongings. From this point, Cabiria reveals little by little her childhood dream that prince charming really does exist. At one point, under the trance of a magician, she recalls the beauty of her youth with her long black hair, a distant memory due to the cruel streets where she makes her living. When a seemingly sincere man presents himself to her, he seems too good to be true, but slowly, Cabiria let her guard down and accepts his marriage proposal. That decision brings her to a cliff overlooking a lake, again with purse in hand, alongside a man she thought she knew. What happens next reveals her undefeatable spirit.

Masina won the Best Actress prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival for her performance in addition to receiving her third Nastro d’Argento. Masina attended the Academy Awards ceremony alone because Fellini was working on a film at the time and did not believe they would win. She accepted the award, visibly shaken, and thanked Fellini and the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis.

Watch the trailer for "Nights of Cabiria"..

Renato Castellani’s 1959 “Nella città l’inferno” (And the Wild, Wild Women) stars Masina and Anna Magnani as Lina and Egle, women locked up for petty crimes in a Rome jail. The version available in the United States on Amazon Prime is dubbed in English, and much of the performances are lost in translation but it’s worth watching these two icons share scenes together. Masina’s character, Lina, undergoes a complete transformation during the course of the film as a reflection of Egle’s rough influence. Alberto Sordi makes a lively, over-the-top cameo as a notorious womanizer and conman. I recommend watching this on Amazon to understand the story and then watching the original version without subtitles on YouTube to experience the authentic, organic performances of three of Italy’s cinematic icons. 

Watch this clip of Masina and Magnani from “Nella città l’inferno”..

Masina joined her husband for another collaboration in 1965  on “Giulietta degi spiriti” (Juliet of the Spirits). The film marked Fellini’s first color project, an experimentation resulting in a kaleidoscope effect blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Masina is Giulietta, a housewife who deals with her husband’s infidelity by embarking on a psychedelic journey of self-discovery with a whole cast of characters. Masina’s performance earned her a David di Donatello for Best Actress.

Watch the original 1965 trailer for “Giulietta degi spiriti”...

During the late 1960s and ‘70s, Masina worked on projects for the small screen, including her own show, which ran from 1966 – 1969 and roles in several television series. In 1969, she had her first English-language role in “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” a comedy starring Katharine Hepburn.

In 1986, she teamed up with her husband once again for “Ginger and Fred.” Set in Fellini’s Rome of the bizarre and misfits, the film is a satire about two dancers who made careers during World War II imitating Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. They are reunited for a performance on a tacky and bizarre variety show. Masina plays Amelia Bonetti aka Ginger, a widowed grandmother who accepts the offer to show her grandchildren what she did during her heyday and to be reunited with her dance partner who still holds a special place in her heart. Pippo Botticella aka Fred is played by Fellini’s longtime screen alter ego, Marcello Mastroianni. He shows up at the last minute just looking to make a buck. Lifelong friends, it was the first time that Masina and Mastroianni appeared in a film together. The role earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress and her fourth Nastro d’Argento. 

Fellini was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars in 1993 by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. In his infamous acceptance speech, he thanked all the people who had worked on his films over the course of his career, but named only one. “Let me make only one name of an actress who is also my wife. Thank you dear Giulietta and please stop crying!” The shot of her in tears gave testament to their lifetime of love. 

Watch the clip from the Oscars...

Fellini passed away in October of that year, just one day after the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. Masina passed away five months later from lung cancer on March 23, 1994. Their iconic cinematic collaborations have made their love immortal. 

All the aforementioned films are available on Amazon and/or the Criterion Channel. Below are direct links to stream the films available through Amazon... 



- Written by Jeannine Guilyard for the July issue of Fra Noi Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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