Never has passing praise of a Federico Fellini film drawn so much attention.
The bulk of the recent interview with Pope Francis by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Italian journal La Civilta Cattolica, concerned how the Holy Father's experience as a member of the Society of Jesus informs his papacy. Worldwide news coverage of the sit-down, not surprisingly, has focused instead on the pontiff's comments about such issues as abortion, contraception, homosexuality and the role of women in the church.
Yet, trailing just behind those topics in the race for spilt ink have come the pope's cultural picks, especially this one: "'La Strada,' by Fellini, is the movie that perhaps I loved the most. I identify with this movie, in which there is an implicit reference to St. Francis."
Whoosh! The commentariat descended as if the pope were handing out Academy Awards.
Francis mentioned quite a few other creative figures whose works he enjoys. Among writers he cited Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky ("Crime and Punishment"), German lyric poet Friedrich Holderlin, Italian novelist and Catholic literary stalwart Alessandro Manzoni ("The Betrothed"), as well as Victorian-era Jesuit priest and poet Father Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The pope's favorite musical works include Richard Wagner's Christian-themed opera "Parsifal," Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Mozart's Mass in C Minor. As for paintings, Francis singled out Baroque pioneer Michelangelo Merisi da Carvaggio's masterpiece, "The Calling of St. Matthew" in Rome's Church of St. Louis of the French.
But it's the pontifical nod to Fellini's 1954 neorealist drama -- which won the first Oscar awarded to a foreign-language film -- that seems to have rendered observers breathless, reinforcing Francis' already existing reputation as the "hipster pope."
Seen in context, though, that idea is something of a U.S.-centric canard. Present-day Americans who reference Fellini, unless they're film students, may find themselves labeled hipsters because their knowledge of his work suggests they've been frequenting art-house cinemas.
To Pope Francis, who speaks fluent Italian and who saw the film in its original release, however, "La Strada" would never have come across as exotic or foreign.
Thus the Holy Father also recalls having seen, as a child, all the films co-starring Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi. The pair made three movies together, including director Roberto Rossellini's classic, "Rome, Open City" (1945), about the Nazi occupation of the Italian capital during World War II.
This beloved and influential drama finds the stout Fabrizi, who was usually cast in comic roles, playing a priest named Don Pietro. An ally of the Italian resistance, Don Pietro overlooks creedal divides to help an atheist who's on the run from the Germans. After both are arrested, moreover, Don Pietro courageously withstands the Gestapo's efforts to twist his faith into a pretext for betraying the nonbeliever.
On a lighter note, it's amusing to remember that the earthy and sensuous Magnani was so well-known to Americans during her 1950s heyday that Lucille Ball mimicked her in the memorable episode of "I Love Lucy" in which the comedienne stomped wine grapes in a giant barrel.
To return to "La Strada," though, a summary of the film's plot may help to clarify some of the more insightful reactions to the pope's comments about it.
"La Strada" is a powerfully expressive working-class fable set among traveling performers. Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife, plays the childlike Gelsomina. Gelsomina's family sells her to Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a crude, brutal strongman with only one trick: He can break chains binding his chest.
She later runs away from him and joins a high-wire performer and clown, Il Matto, "The Fool," played by Richard Basehart.
Zampano beats Gelsomina and eventually kills Il Matto because of his constant teasing. Before that happens, Il Matto uses the "parable of the pebble" -- the Franciscan reference mentioned by the pope -- to assure Gelsomina that even her sad, squalid life has a purpose.
Zampano doesn't find redemption until the end of the movie, when he learns that Gelsomina has died following his abandonment of her. In anguish, he realizes that his own life had meaning -- but only because she had loved him all along.
Writing in 1994, critic Roger Ebert captured the mood of "La Strada" when he observed: "In almost all of Fellini's films, you will find the figure of a man caught between earth and sky. ... You will find journeys, processions, parades, clowns, freaks, and the shabby melancholy of an empty field at dawn, after the circus has left."
Bearing in mind the spare production values of the neorealist approach in general -- and its characteristic focus on ordinary people -- The Guardian's Jason Farago notes that the pope's admiration for such fare is "in line with his modest and humble public image."
Annette Insdorf, a respected film scholar who teaches at Columbia University, wrote for the Reuters news agency: "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."
The pope himself didn't elaborate on his admiration for the film. But Father Spadaro, who conceded that the pontiff's remarks caught him a bit off-guard, asked a broader question: "Then, Holy Father, creativity is important for the life of a person?"
In response, Francis "laughs and replies: 'For a Jesuit it is extremely important! A Jesuit must be creative.'"