Projections of The Self

This monthly column on film and psychology focuses on the Tragicomedy La Strada & Soul Murder

By Edward Mendelowitz, PhD

The poet Rilke had said that in the modern world the creative artist, even more than the cleric, would carry humankind's spiritual messages and codes. From its earliest days, film seems especially to have refracted some of that ineffable light which we rightly associate with the spiritual no less than imaginative domains. Many perceptive souls have noted that the great directors are often purveyors of far-reaching spiritual truths. Perhaps it has something to do with the filmmaker's pervasive meditation on the nature of things as s/he strives for camera-eye clarity comparable to the 'eye of Shiva' or 'vision of saints' of traditions seeking expanded consciousness as their goal. It was in this sense that the Italian director Federico Fellini once likened the process of filmmaking to Eastern meditative disciplines and yogic techniques. Here, in these filmic realms, insights are primarily intuitive and visual rather than by dint of the exclusively rational processes and mind. Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and Juliet of the Spirits, Michelangelo Antonioni's Eclipse, Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, Andrey Tarkovsky's Solaris, Akira Kurosawa's Dream, Agnes Varda's The Gleaners, Krzystof Kieslowski's Decalogue, Wim Wender's Wings of Desire, and Ildiko Enyedi's My Twentieth Century are among the more stunning examples of this rarefied craft. In this column we shall hava a chance to ponder these and many other artworks over time, thereby opening up to creative depths and heights which are at once imaginatively astonishing, psychologically sublime, and spiritually profound.

Meditations on La Strada (Federico Fellini/Italy/1954)

La Strada & Soul Murder: A Tragicomedy 

"How should we live?"  someone asked me in a  letter. I had meant to ask him the same question.

Again, and as ever, as may be seen above, the most pressing questions are naïve ones. - Wislawa Szymborska, The Century's Decline

I am not a "therapeutic" artist, my films don't suggest solutions or methods, they don't put forward ideologies. All I do is bear witness to what happens to me, interpret and express the reality that surrounds me. If, through my films . . . people come to an equal awareness of themselves, then they have achieved the state of clear-sighted detachment . . . which is essential in making new choices, in bringing about [change]. - Federico Fellini, Fellini on Fellini

I believe . . . that what I care about most is the freedom of man, the liberation of the individual . . . from the network of moral and social convention in which he believes, or rather in which he thinks he believes, [but] which encloses him and limits him and makes him seem narrower, smaller, . . . even worse than he really is. If you really want me to turn teacher, then condense it with these words: be what you are . . . discover yourself . . . To me life is beautiful, for all its tragedy and suffering . . . I am moved by it . . . I do my best to share this way of feeling with others.- Federico Fellini, Fellini on Fellini

La Strada will remain the crucial point in my life. [It] is really the complete catalogue of my entire mythical world.- Federico Fellini

We are definitely in the presence of a poet who is like no one else and in whom we should have total confidence. - Charensol on Fellini

It starts by the sea, as it always does. We see Gelsomina from afar, void of face or personality. She comes from the sea, is identified with it, guileless and fluid. And then the leave-taking, the American-made motorcycle, the man of the world and the lure. "I'll be an artiste. I'll sing and dance—like Rosa." Rosa's invocation is cryptic and oblique, possibly important. Perhaps she recalls a time when Zampano was still open and hopeful, when his mobile home promised adventure and drama, even love. Long before our film begins, Zampano has lost something he will never find again. Do not be misled by the evocative symbols—the crossed swords, the snake and mermaid. They are smoke and mirrors. For Zampano it is over before it begins. He equates Gelsomina's apprenticeship to the training of dogs, knows his Pavlov. Zampano is here.

Gelsomina is Zampano's antipode. She is infused with childlike wonder and intelligence, sees in the virginal road the possibility of path and vitality, dimly perceiving that her journey begins with a monetary transaction that will come increasingly to define the utilitarian nature of life on the road. As she bids farewell to sea and family, she drops her bundle of brushwood (gelsomina means "jasmine" in Italian, with its intimations of sunlight and earth) and bids unwitting farewell to the harmony of nature. She climbs into Zampano's van and embarks, unknowingly, upon a treadmill existence of linearity, subordination, rote and routine. As she disappears behind Zampano's black curtain so do our own souls recede.

Zampano, true to his word, trains and treats Gelsomina like a dog. (Crime #1: behaviorism.) "Do only what I tell you. Zampano is here." He thrashes her with a switch when she shows too much ingenuity (refuses to learn her line and place) and takes her by force on the first night (crime #2: rape) but dodges even the most pedestrian questions about himself, ridicules her desire for more meaningful contact. "Where are you from? Where were you born?" The muscleman is beyond encounter. The scene in which Gelsomina tries on various hats is laden with poignancy: she is becoming acquainted with the tedium of the mundane (which may inhere, she discovers, even in show business), begins to identify freedom with imagination and escape though these too will be quashed by authority. Zampano needs a drumbeater, not a human being or, God forbid, spontaneity. Do only what I tell you, Zampano is here.

A quarter of an inch thick, stronger than steel, the faint-hearted ought look away. Zampano's appreciation of the woman is measured in instrumental terms, what she can do for him. The gun-and-duck routine is a big success (a rare expression of the simple merging of love and work) but quickly followed by Zampano's abandonment of Gelsomina for a prostitute. Gelsomina's cape (its wings suggesting flight and fancy) is replaced by drab and oversized military garb. There is no place along the pedestrian trail for Daedalus flights or lighthearted souls. Institutionalized experience, uniforms and uniformity, repetition compulsion, the child Oswaldo (like Gelsomina herself, "strange" and "hidden," "not like the others"1) quarantined far from the gaze of the quotidian world. Frank Burke elaborates astutely the mounting tension between head and body, spirit and matter, angel and beast which Fellini so deftly sketches during that hallowed scene in which ineffability and the holy are glimpsed:

Oswaldo's name means "the power of godliness"; Gelsomina must ascend a flight of stairs to reach him; he is guarded by a religious representative2 . . . Gelsomina's encounter with him is profound, numinous . . . awe-inspiring. At the same time, Zampano is on ground level, gulping down food, talking with the self-assertively physical Theresa . . . about to descent [to] the cellar [for] sex. As Gelsomina's intelligence develops and as Zampano continues to repress his own, they begin to live their lives on separate levels. In this instance—and indicative of what will recur throughout the film—she ends up back down on his . . . defeated by his unfeeling behavior.

Zampano, in short, is one of the multitudes for whom, as William Barrett observes, "the sense of mystery simply [does] not exist."

It is here, in the moment of love's defeat (which takes place, paradoxically, on the occasion of a wedding3), that the memory of a song once heard on the radio first enters into Gelsomina's mind. It is the projection of meaning out of the immanent world and into the ether, a foregoing of reality for substitute consciousness. That ironic wink exchanged between Zampano and Gelsomina says it all: the moment of seeming communion signals nothing but deceit. Sex for a pinstripe suit. (Crime #3: prostitution.) Gelsomina's song—the plaintive voice of an atrophied soul—comes, like the sea, from afar (surrogate harmony), rushes in to fill the void left by loneliness and shrinkage. "Remember how nice it was, Zampano, that rainy day by the window?" Zampano hasn't a clue.

When Gelsomina tries to run off, she makes it clear that it is because of the failure of love and not work. "I'm fed up," she complains; "It's not from the work. It's you I don't like." So she steps back to the road, soon lost for direction, until she hears the call of music once more, dances off in pursuance of muse only to find herself lost in the provincial town and crowd and the narrow streets and overwhelmed by the Church's solemnity, pomp, and gravity. Introduce now Il Matto and our dialectic is fully drawn. Il Matto, "the Fool" and angel who materializes from a shadow, suspended in air (high above and ungrounded), ethereal in his essence and calling yet foreshadowing his own crucifixion with his crossbar and rope; and Zampano, the strongman and beast who remains low to the ground, moves with leaden feet but discloses few signs of life above the neck and the chest. Such normative conceptions of good and evil bring to mind the words of the philosopher who informs our central theme. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche decries a psychology "stuck in moral prejudices" and "has not dared to descent [to] the depths," pointing instead to one which might truly function as "the queen of sciences"—one proceeding with subtlety and nuance. For the moment, however, all is weight and travesty. The reunion of Gelsomina and Zampano is ungraceful: she resists and he beats her. (Crime #4, we are sad to report, is battery.)

Our motley trio now find themselves thrown together into the Giraffa Circus, its very name underscoring (with unnatural separation of head and body) our essential conflict: angel and beast, mind and body, good versus evil. The pressure mounts as the mercurial Il Matto cannot resist mocking the vainglorious strongman who survives to survive, without imagination or joy. "Such a variety of numbers! A circus needs animals!" Zampano can only prove the Fool's point in tiresome reenactment of his timeworn performance. ("Habit," says Beckett's Vladimir, "is a great deadener.") Zampano's dumbly repeated routine (without evolution or awe) is not so different from the way many of us live our lives (what are standardized and "managed" notions of mental health, in the end, but the diminution of possibility and experience?), the gesture thus underscoring the bankruptcy of the isolated ego and act. Fellini describes this as a sort of "monadism" which "permeates the very essence of our [lives] . . . the world of atoms here carried to extremes." "You may not be professors," boasts Zampano, "but any intelligent person knows you need three things—healthy lungs, ribs of steel, and superhuman strength." And we who know the world and road too well can only nod in abject concession to the self-sufficient man who acts, like Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov, "for myself, for myself alone." "Magnifico!" taunts Il Matto even before Zampano completes his hackneyed performance, and then the knife-wielding pursuit. (Crime #5: armed assault.)

Zampano's unspoken crime lies in his inability to survey the inner landscape, the higher path—"to see life clearly and see it whole" as Sophocles has said. Time and again, he misses those roadside possibilities without which the journey is void of all human meaning. And if Il Matto errs in an opposite way (his affected manner and ridiculous laugh let us know that he, too, is deformed), he at least still believes in those moments of grace which occur just to the side of the inexorable trail. In a world of strong-arm tactics and high-wire acts and delimiting institution, it is the Fool who is still able to respond to Gelsomina's yearning. "What a funny face you have, like an artichoke." "I'm no good to anyone and I'm tired of living. What am I here for on this earth?" "Maybe he loves you. A dog looks at you and wants to talk but only barks. If you don't stay with him who will?" When Gelsomina concludes, however misguidedly, that her destiny is to remain with Zampano, Il Matto makes it clear (albeit traveling upward in opposite direction) that he, like the muscleman, has become inured to the solitary way. "I don't need anybody. That's how I am. Addio, Gelsomina. Ciao." He leaves Gelsomina with a stone and philosophical abstractions he has read in a book as she continues to lose touch with her own spontaneity and self. Rollo May teaches aptly, "powerlessness corrupts."

Weary and disillusioned, Gelsomina now finds a last vestige of peace deep inside the convent. "It's raining, it's nice here," she sighs. It reminds her of the day by the window. "Don't you ever think about anything?" she asks Zampano. "There's nothing to think about," he rejoins; "Go to sleep."4 Whereas Gelsomina finds here momentary respite Zampano sees only another chance to indulge opportunism as he tries to make off with silver hearts. (Crime #6 is larceny.) The offense here is one more demonstration of Zampano's self-encapsulation. He cannot open up to anyone or thing in any genuine way, neither person nor ideal. "She helps a little—beats the drum, blows the trumpet," he concedes to the nun. Anything but acknowledgement of bond or affection.5 It is, we may say, a protest from the shorelines of oblivion.

And make no mistake, Fellini's church is not Lourdes. "We too travel," says the nun, "so we don't get attached to worldly things, like the place where one lives or a plant even, thereby forgetting the most important thing. We both travel—you with your husband and me with mine." Normative, though touching, theology. Fellini treats schematic conceptions of belief and deity, faith and existence with skepticism and irony. He seeks "emancipation from conventional schemes . . . [a retrieval] of an authenticity of life rhythms, of life modes, of vital cadences"—the idea, he says, found "in all of my films" and, we may add, not merely in a book. The filmmaker points us beyond ordained notions of good and evil—conceptions, says Nietzsche, "without nuance." He aims toward "a way of living without prejudice . . .  [or] preconceived ideas," pointing us thereby toward a dialectic within. "When someone says 'God is death,'" writes Fellini, "it means merely that the demand for God is seen in a purer, more uncorrupted form . . . Man is not just a social being, he is divine." The filmmaker espouses a "romany" (gypsy-like) spirit of "companionship and daily discovery and constant moving on." Such romany spirit is precluded by institution and system no less than ego. As Gelsomina departs, we see the nun standing in the shadow of an overarching cross: another crucifixion in effect.

And then it is back to the road for the final travesty. "Zampano! Stop it! He's hurt, he's hurt!" "Shut up! Shut up, I said!" (Crime #7 is manslaughter.) With his flattened tire, our high-wire Icarus is brought low to the ground, the clump of earth and grass in his fist chiding his very presumption of unmodulated flight: Zampano simply finishes off the job. With this final blow, Gelsomina now retreats utterly from the world in sympathy with the fallen aerialist. She has been called "matta" (feminine form of "matto") at several points in the film in anticipation of this moment. With only her song as solace, Gelsomina drifts resignedly upward, the possibility of inner balance in now utter forfeiture. As Melville says of Billy Budd, "innocence was [her] blinder."

Zampano at times seems on the verge of awareness as he observes Gelsomina's heartrending dissolution but lives too much on the surface and in the ego, cannot penetrate the heart which lies embedded beneath those idiotic pectoral muscles of his. "I just want to work in peace. Haven't I that right?" Work without love, the yoke and the road—the modern-day ethos we all know quite well. Gelsomina herself is no longer among the living and hears now a celestial sound. "It's alright here. The Fool is hurt." "This can't go on! I've got to make a living!" shouts Zampano; "You're sick! You're sick up here!" "You killed him. It's all right here. I wanted to run away but he told me to stay. We need more wood. The fire's going out." Zampano's inner light was extinguished long ago. As Gelsomina drifts off into sleep and Zampano steals back to the road, the verdict is rendered with fateful solemnity: good and evil, angel and beast, at last irreconcilable.

Fellini is one of our master psychoanalysts. He is forever concerned with the nature of things, the ways in which we human beings live and mostly do not—the manner in which we are blinded by illusion and pretense, cut off from the very connections (within and without) that might offer reprieve. From the earliest points, he is meditating on the nature of good and evil, dream and reality, illusion and life. The real crime in the end is one of soul-murder, too ubiquitous a transgression to be prosecuted by external agency. Assault and battery, murder and rape, theft and behaviorism—these are outward manifestations of an inmost offense. "Violence," writes May, "is a symptom." Here, too, the Italian director shows uncommon perspicacity when he writes of "two psychological aspects—one which aims upward, the other downward—"two divided, separated instincts":

There is a vertical line in spirituality that goes from the beast to the angel and on which we oscillate. Every day, every minute carries the danger of losing ground. 

Moving beyond good and evil implies getting back to the heart with insight, perhaps, as midwife and guide. Evident here is the salience of the feminine (what Fellini calls the "poetry of woman" or "feminine affectiveness"), an inward dynamic and tension leading to "a reconciliation of opposites, unity of being"—a process Martin Buber had called "heart-searching." From here the return to world and relationship would be easy.

Quoting an ancient Chinese saying, the physicist Werner Heisenberg reminds us that dedication to mechanistic pursuits makes one act in a machine-like manner. Whoever does his business in the manner of a machine develops a machine heart. Whoever has a machine heart in his breast loses . . . simplicity. Whoever loses . . . simplicity becomes uncertain in . . . impulses of . . . spirit. Uncertainty in . . . impulses of . . . spirit is something . . . incompatible with truth.

"Technique," writes Barrett, "has no meaning apart from some informing vision."  Fellini echoes:

We live in an age that has made a cult of methodology, that makes us weakly believe that scientific or ideological [concerns] have the edge over reality . . . [One] is suspicious of fantasy, of . . . originality, in other words of personality.

Would that Zampano knew Lao-tzu, read a few verses from the Tao te Ching every day. There he would find instructions for a more subtle way—endorsement of the supple and soft, the flow of the time and existence rather than the solitary yoke of the road.

Fellini himself suggests a work ethic quite different from Zampano's. "[W]ork, to me, is a complete part of life," he writes; "I cannot do it in detached, professional way":

A film is a living reality . . . I don't want to make a mystery of my work, but I would like to say that my system is to have no system: I go to a story to discover what it has to tell me.

Applaud the great Zampano, the man with iron lungs. We hear it every day while heart and soul go wanting, subsist on glimpses of reality dimly perceived in snatches of song and fleeting encounters along the way. Zampano's road is every pragmatist's road, Gelsomina's retreat every innocent's ascension, good and evil emblematic of every unsubtle dichotomy.

Yet there is atonement at last and in precisely the way in which psychology would have it. Zampano evades authority but ends his life back where it began, as it always does, by the sea. "I have no friends. I don't need anybody. I want to be left alone." The final time we observe Zampano's performance, the image dissolves before the strongman even breaks his chain. From the start it has been an anticlimactic charade, another impotent protest from one of life's roadside casualties. In his drunken stupor (crime #8—if anyone is still counting—is disorderly conduct, substance abuse), Zampano turns his gaze heavenward to the fathomless expanse and the mystery of things, discerns his destitute failure in identification with those vast empty spaces reflecting, perhaps, an irredeemable poverty within. The beast now collapses in utter defeat and, as Fitzgerald would say, the holocaust is complete.

Zampano does not say a thing but if he would and could it might sound very much like words uttered by Beckett's Vladimir, for whom epiphany also comes in the midst of solitude:

Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of to-day? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? . . But in all that what truth will there be? (Estrogen, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He'll know nothing. He'll tell me about the blows he received and I'll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens . . . He looks again at Estrogen.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.

Speaking of his early masterpiece, Fellini had written:  

Our trouble, as modern[s], is loneliness, and this begins in the very depths of our being. No public celebration or political symphony can hope to be rid of it. Only between man and man . . . can this solitude be broken, only through individual people can a kind of message be passed, making [us] understand—almost discover—the profound link between one person and the next.

Thereby might we achieve a transition, again in Barrett's words, from "closed to open worlds."

Our black-and-white story (intimations of makeshift dichotomy evident in its very presentation) is relevant to these postmodern times of color and speed and technological advance and shows the artist's insight into the prompting of the heart and machinations of the head, into the virtuosity which would be required by their all too infrequent synthesis. The psychoanalyst-director points us back to a breach within which underlies the punishable offense, highlighting thereby a reconciliation that might offer reprieve. La strada at last is a tale of everyman and everywoman, of the struggle to find connection and meaning far beyond everyday norms. Gelsomina drifts upward, Zampano tumbles downward. It will not be until Gelsomina's return in Fellini's next great masterpiece that the chasm will be broached once again and the wound finally healed. There we will know her as Cabiria, a streetwalker Fellini has already introduced in a film called The White Sheik. For the moment, however, we are left with the ravages of error—heavenly retreats and seaside crashes—as we await a maestro's surefooted progress down what was to become the most inspired of paths.

La strada—the man and the woman, the chain and the pretense, the song and the trumpet, the journey, the people, the road.


  1. Indeed, Fellini spoke of his wife, Giulietta Masina, as "a special case," the "true soul" of the films in which she acted.

  2. One who nonetheless admonishes starkly, "Beware my stick."

  3. Our director finds no comfort in blithe institution.

  4. "Ah the old questions, the old answers," says Hamm ("with fervor") in Beckett's Endgame, "there's nothing like them." "The familiar," comments Eugene Webb (1972), "though monotonous, provides a feeling of security"(p. 61).

  5. Pozzo, we recall, still refers to Lucky as his "menial" long after there is any substance to his claims of authority or import.


Barrett, W. (1978). The Illusion of Technique. Garden City: Anchor Books.

Beckett, S. (1954). Waiting for Godot: a tragicomedy in two acts. New York: Grove Press.

Berke, F. (1996). Fellini's Films. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Fellini, F. (1954). La Strada. Rome.

Keel, A. and Strich, C. (Eds.) (1976). Fellini on Fellini (I. Quigley, trans.). New York: Dell.

May, R. (1972). Power and Innocence. New York: Norton.

Nietzsche, F. (1885/1968). "Beyond good and evil." In The Basic Writings of

Nietzsche (W. Kaufmann, ed. & trans.). New York: Basic Books.

Webb, E. (1972). The Plays of Samuel Beckett. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Biographical Note

Ed Mendelowitz completed his doctoral studies at the California School of Professional Psychology where he worked closely with Rollo May. He is on the board of editors for JHP and a contributor to the major compendiums of existential/humanistic/depth psychotherapy. He has presented numerous papers on psychology, psychotherapy and their respective interrelations with the humanities in both the USA and Europe. His work resides, perhaps, on the gnostic frontiers of psychology in its eloquent blending of art, literature, music, cinema, religion, philosophy and clinical narrative with the more recognizable fare of theoretical scholarship. His collage-like Ethics and Lao-tzu: Intimations of Character has been called "an extraordinary moral narrative" by Robert Coles and "a remarkable book, a compendium of wisdom from an astonishing variety of sources" by the late psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis. Dr. Mendelowitz is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of the Rockies. He lives and works in Boston.