Giulia Anna (Giulietta) Masina (February 22, 1921 – March 23, 1994) was one of the most recognizable faces of the Italian Neorealist movement. After blossoming on both stage and radio as a popular actress, she met and fell in love with director Federico Fellini. Their partnership-- both marital and cinematic (he directed over half her films)-- drove them both to relative stardom.
Though she suffered great strife in her later years-- miscarriage, the death of her only child, the loss of her husband and her eventually fatal bout with cancer-- she remained charming and animated on the screen, continuing even through great personal turmoil to play often-controversial characters with borderline-slapstick physical acting, securing her place in cinematic history as the "female Chaplin."
For those of you who haven't spent years scrutinizing this shit in film school, let's define Italian Neorealism as an early-to-mid 20th century style of Italian cinema (we can't call it a movement, per se, as it lacks a conscious set of boundaries for what 'is' or 'isn't' neorealist) that, in direct contrast to the telefono bianco films that dominated pre-fascist Italy, focused on representing the life of the Italian everyman: The bicycle thief, the strong man in the circus, the housewife, the elderly man who can't get a break, the hungry child.
Masina was so ace at playing these types of roles, it could be said, simply due to her kindness and overall interest in exemplifying the best and worst of humanity. In her later years, she had a popular radio show where listeners could write in and ask for advice-- though this seems like a terrible idea by today's standards, she was utterly beloved by the Italian people. The show lasted nearly ten years, and many of the letters were eventually published in a book.
Seriously, imagine ANY of today's 'indie actresses' doing that sort of thing. Yowza.
Masina's roles can be counted as some of the most dramatic amidst an already-dramatic style of cinema-- In her most renowned role as the tortured Gelsomina in Fellini's La Strada, Masina plays a young woman from an extremely poor family sold into what amounts to indentured servitude to a circus strongman named Zampanò (-- eventually referenced by Mark Z. Danielewski in the postmodern horror epic House of Leaves!) by her mother. Though he beats her, rapes her, barely feeds her and forces her away from a man she falls in love with-- Il Matto, meaning The Fool-- she remains faithful, though it leads, eventually, to her demise.
(I'd tell you more, but I don't want to ruin the story. Go see it!)
(^ Watch this ASAP, her dancing is incredible! Then she fights an old prostitute. It's pretty great stuff.)
Another of Masina's great films is Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, in which Masina, as a young, beautiful, almost hip prostitute named Cabiria (surprise, surprise), wanders the streets of Rome looking for love.
From Wikipedia: "The film follows Cabiria as she searches for love but encounters frequent heartbreak. Mistreated and taken advantage of by almost everybody she encounters, Cabiria eventually meets a man who promises her a respectable future and falls head over heels in love with him. What follows is a series of humiliating episodes, in which the defiantly positive Cabiria is hurt, but never broken."
Critic Bosley Crowther had the following to say about Cabiria: "Like La strada and several other of the post-war Italian neo-realistic films, this one is aimed more surely toward the development of a theme than a plot. Its interest is not so much the conflicts that occur in the life of the heroine as the deep, underlying implications of human pathos that the pattern of her life shows...But there are two weaknesses in Cabiria. It has a sordid atmosphere and there is something elusive and insufficient about the character of the heroine. Her get-up is weird and illogical for the milieu in which she lives and her farcical mannerisms clash with the ugly realism of the theme."
It's strange, because clearly his comment is meant to be taken in a highly negative light, but the sordid atmosphere and elusive, strangely-dressed heroine are the highlights of the film for most. Oh well, to each his own.
(Masina & Fellini on the set of La Strada. Adorable.)
From 'Non Stuzzicate la zanzara' (1967)-- I think this is where Le Tigre got the sample for "Hot Topic," but I could be wrong!
(Part 1 of a documentary about Fellini-- interesting viewing)
For more information on Masina-- her life, career, and lasting impact-- check out the following links:
FilmReference: Giulietta Masina