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Daniel Walber

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Daniel Walber is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He sometimes wishes he were French Canadian, loves any movie under 80 minutes, and is gay for Bette Davis.

The Out Take: How Fellini Convinced the New Pope to Accept Gay People

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You may have heard that The Pope is suddenly cool with homosexuality.

In an interview with America Magazine, Pope Francis I said some very wise and odd things. He didn’t go so far as to change the Vatican’s position on social issues like homosexuality or reproductive rights, but he suggested that perhaps they would better spend their time on other issues. The result, as you might guess, was confusion and outrage among the demagogue community and excitement everywhere else.

We also learned about Pope Francis I’s taste in movies. Apparently he’s got a thing for classic Italian cinema, and grew up with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi. The two films he mentioned by name as his favorites are Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” and Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City.” Pretty cool trivia, right?

I think it’s more than trivia. Basically, the Pope’s relationship with cinema and his understanding of the fights over homosexuality and contraception are equal parts of the same philosophy. The religious ideas in “La Strada” and “Rome, Open City” are complements to the pontiff’s new openness, part and parcel of a single worldview. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these films turned the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio into a liberal, but there’s a connection that goes beyond simple taste. And so instead of talking about queer cinema this week, I’d like to take some time to examine how some old straight films have influenced a new straight Pope to be kinder and more philosophically open to gay people.

Incidentally, this entire experience would be a surreal one for Fellini and Rossellini themselves. During their careers they were criticized by the church countless times, over everything from their politics, to the “obscenity” in their films, to personal scandals. That it has only taken a few decades for the Catholic Church to move from open condemnation and censorship of “La Dolce Vita” to a Pope praising its director is extraordinary. It took centuries for them to pardon Galileo, and their problem with him didn’t even involve sex.

That being said, these particular films are not exactly anticlerical. Fellini’s “La Strada” is a parable of sorts, and Pope Francis is right when he infers a reference to Saint Francis of Assisi. Its protagonist is Gelsomina (Giuletta Masina), a naïve young woman who is sold by her mother to a traveling circus performer, the brutish Zampanò (Anthony Quinn). Gelsomina is a one-woman allegory for grace, charmingly innocent through the film’s heartbreaking finale. Zampanò, meanwhile, is given a final chance at redemption through what can be seen as her sacrifice. Initially it was not the church who objected to “La Strada,” but rather Marxists opposed to its religious message.

Yet Gelsomina has not been an ideal role model for the contemporary church. “La Strada” has elements of parable but it is also a complicated movie about circus performers, not traditionally seen as the most pious members of society. The Fool (Richard Baseheart), the third lead, further expounds on this open concept of faith. Everyone, even a pebble, has a purpose given by God. This includes Zampanò the brute and Gelsomina the impoverished and guileless woman, along with the ribald gypsies who perform alongside them. Fellini’s refusal to color his film with the specific doctrines of Catholicism is a refusal to accept a narrow path to salvation.

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“Rome, Open City” is an even more intriguing film for Pope Francis to mention by name. On the surface it almost looks like a blatant, undeniably positive endorsement of the church. This is mostly because of a single character, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi). A priest closely allied to the Italian resistance to the German occupation of Rome in the latter days of World War Two, he is the clear hero of the film. His struggle against the Nazis is noble and his motivation is pure. It’s almost too obvious a choice for a prince of the church.

Yet, like “La Strada,” there’s something more interesting going on in the details of “Rome, Open City.” Rossellini’s first masterpiece lines up with a Jesuit idea that dominates Pope Francis’s interview with America Magazine: “discernment.” The pontiff uses the word seventeen times in this single conversation. Basically, the concept boils down to the importance of context. “Spiritual discernment,” as he puts it, “responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people and from reading the signs of the times.” Decisions cannot be made without exploring every element of the question. It’s a logical extension of the universal salvation of “La Strada,” that everyone and everything should be considered.

This is also what guides Don Pietro in Rossellini’s film. He is devout, yet he understands that Pina (Anna Magnani) should not be condemned for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. He does not have a steadfast, strict response to the moral relativism of an occupation, when theft and the black market become tools of survival as well as personal advantage. Finally, in one of the film’s most harrowing moments, the Gestapo tries to use his faith against him. As a priest, they say, he should betray the Communist resistance because they are atheists. He refuses. His rationale is simple and surprising: “Anyone fighting for justice and liberty walks in the ways of the Lord.”

Earlier this month, Pope Francis seems to have implied that atheists are not automatically excluded from heaven (though there is debate, as always, around what exactly it is that he meant). If Don Pietro is his model, however, we might have a better idea.

Now, this does not suddenly solve the Catholic Church’s problems with homosexuality or reproductive rights or anything else. I applaud Pope Francis’s love of Fellini and Rossellini, but it’d still be a lot more thrilling if he started raving about Lina Wertmüller, Luchino Visconti or Pier Paolo Pasolini (I do wonder what he thinks of “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”). There’s a long, long way to go before queer people are accepted into the church with open arms. Pope Francis’s response to questions about the role of women weren’t exactly satisfying, either.

Yet I think there’s something to be said for this idea of discernment, as well as his overall tone. It’s important to notice that he brought up these cultural touchstones himself – the interviewer was taken aback by a reference the Pope made to Puccini’s Turandot, and suddenly they were discussing Mozart, Cervantes and Rossellini. Pope Francis has taken an interest in secular art and in the plight of those who have recently been neglected or attacked by the church. It may be a baby step, but it’s an encouraging one. I’ll take it.


Categories: Columns

Tags: Column, Daniel Walber, Federico fellini, La strada, LGBT, The Out Take, The Pope