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Melancholy is pleasant to live with

FRAMES OF REFERENCE Bernice Rubens, the author, talks to the psychotherapist Martin Lloyd Elliott about the film that changed her life
BR: I saw it at the right moment. It didn't change me as much as confirm me. Which I think is just as important. I'd already started writing and making documentary films. My main concern was the inability of people to communicate with each other.

Federico Fellini's La Strada confirmed all that in me and all my fears of not being able to communicate. I'm pretty articulate but I use language as a cover and as a protection against real confrontation. The real confrontation is to do with silence, no t with words, and this film articulated the most beautiful and poignant silence that confirmed in me the longing to talk to someone silently. The feelings are so poignant, so deep, so painfully inexpressible.

MLE: Had your sense of being unable to articulate what you really felt always been there?

BR: No I wasn't even aware of it. I think to myself occasionally why am I talking so much? What am I hiding? Why can't I not say things?

Is this why you love music?

Yes. Music is a much greater turn on to me than words. I would sooner have been a musician than a writer any day. And I think it is the music aspect of La Strada, saying exactly what the characters couldn't say to each other, which was so beautiful. It was a personal confirmation of what I feared was my problem of being too articulate. The kind of articulateness that conceals, that protects, that postpones a real confrontation.

So what was your articulateness protecting?

The inability to be myself and not to show myself. To forgive myself I suppose. Isn't that what growing up is all about, learning to forgive oneself? You know, the guilt one carries.

The guilt for being who one is or for not being good enough?

Being a woman of my age and a Jew, one is a survivor. If you have that sense of survival, you also have the sense of guilt and the inability to forgive oneself for having survived. My great joy is to shut up. I live alone and I think I've done that from choice because I can indulge in my own silences and play the cello.

How does your memory of La Strada connect with guilt?

I saw in him the guilt of how he behaved towards her; there was an area of him which knew it was cruel. He was driven by his own circumstances, and he was probably not even aware of them. Until the very end when he hears that tune and he is absolutely overwhelmed by it, without understanding it, but in his gut he knows it. He's got to die of grief. People do die of broken hearts, whatever they say.

What were your circumstances at the time you saw the film?

They were not pertinent. I am by nature disposed to melancholy. Whether I was married, not married, children, no children, there was this disposition. Whatever happened - I had a good marriage - I saw the blackness of it all the time. That's where I dwelt, and that was the colour of La Strada for me.

This sounds like depression.


You don't see it as the same as melancholy?

No, they are not necessarily connected.

Did your perception of your own melancholic disposition change as a result of seeing melancholy almost celebrated in the film?

It made it valid. It was all right to be like this because Anthony Quinn was, and Giulietta Masina was, and they were stars. So when I say the film confirmed many of my own inadequacies, it also celebrated them.

And made them more acceptable?

Yes. Melancholy is a disposition which is quite pleasant to live with, I find.

How so?

I'm used to it. you can also have moments of great euphoria without being manic.

How does love fit in?

It takes on the same colour I suppose. When I am loving, I am aware always of the losing.

Did you see that in the film?

The girl was disposed to melancholy. But I don't think either of them would have seen loss at the same time as possible joy. He never saw the joy until she had gone. Giulietta operates on a dimension that we don't understand. You could see her face of joy and orgasmic freedom when she was beating that drum. But she was dwelling somewhere else.

Did you relate to that?

Oh yes. But I'm interested in how people operate, especially what I cannot understand.

That was the aspect of La Strada that interested me too. There was a common denominator between Giulietta and Basehart. They could speak through his music and her drumming, which was why the loss was so terrible, and her grief when he died was inconsolable. The film's whole feeling is beyond words.

Yes, It is music.

Were you already passionate about music?

Yes. All my life.

Did you use music to escape from words?

I don't know. I prefer music to words. It's a bigger turn on for me. I would sooner listen to chamber music than read Donne, whom I love. But then I read poems aloud and that's music too.

Was music therefore a way of not protecting yourself, of being vulnerable, of exposing yourself to who you were beyond words?

No. In a way I suppose it is hiding still. It gives me even more opportunity for ambiguity and ambivalence than words do. It wasn't until the end of the filmthat I knew the music was the star, that it was speaking for everybody who hadn't been able to open their mouths on anything that mattered.

Did the film relieve the pressure to articulate your feelings?

Not consciously, but an accumulated impression must in time have had that effect. Every time I see La Strada it is further confirmation of what I saw in it originally. This film said to me, "Bernice, it's not your fault."

I wonder if you would have found this answer elsewhere?

We don't acknowledge things if we can't afford to accommodate them. I think my mind and my body were right for La Strada when I saw it. This film related to my natural disposition. So whenever I see La Strada it tears my heart out.

Does it make you cry?

Inside I cry, yes.

Do you cry for yourself?

No, for possibility of loss. That's what tears are about aren't they?

What about love?

It is the loss of the talent for loving that worries one as one gets older.

And death?

If I'm working on a novel I'm immortal, because God wouldn't have the audacity to take me mid sentence. But when I'm not working I'm death conscious. Which is why I write almost all the time. I'm preparing for death, but I don't want to die so I don't think about it. I want my children to survive me. That's what matters. I'll go in my own good time, mid sentence. And I hope it will be a good one.

Has La Strada ever popped into your head for no apparent reason, and suddenly it all makes sense?

Yes, quite often I think of the scene where they're busking and she has this wide eyed look of such joy when she sees him break out of his chains. Like it's the first time she's seen it and it's magic for her. Then when she hears Richard Basehart play for the first time and she wonders at it. She thinks that she's entered heaven.

And you know that feeling.

Yes, I get it when I hear music.

So really you are a musician who happens to write.

I think I'm a musician who is a bad cellist and a moderately good writer.