Chris Knapp in The Paris Review:
Among the central occupations of Fellini’s work is what he wants from the women in his life. Near the end of 8½, his alter ego speaks of a kind of Ideal Woman:“She’s beautiful … young, yet ancient … child, yet already woman. Authentic, complete. It’s obvious she could be his salvation.” Between the breathy declaiming and 8½’s famouslayers of metafiction, you get the idea that even Fellini sees this isn’t exactly a healthy attitude. Still, throughout his work, the search for an ideal of womanhood is represented in a series of large and buxom temptresses: Anita Ekberg, Sandra Milo, Eddra Gale in an especially memorable dance sequence as La Saraghina. But pulling his films off the shelf one by one, my wife and I agreed the problem was most nearly solved, onscreen and in life, by his wife and best collaborator, the tiny and brilliant Guilietta Masina.
…Maybe it’s all married people who wonder how anyone ever finds each other. Giulietta Masina met her husband in the role of Pallina, in a radio serial he’d written about newlyweds; he didn’t visit the studio, but based on the sound of her voice when the serial aired, Fellini invited her to lunch in a fancy district of Rome. This was early spring. She was enrolled at La Sapienza and she was accustomed to coffee dates with broke fellow students—she brought along extra money in case he came up short, and ordered nothing but minestrone, while Fellini himself ate ravioli and ham. It was 1943—the war, Fellini said later, “made everything more urgent”—and by October they were married, in a secret ceremony in her aunt’s apartment, where he was soon installed, hiding indoors in the daytime to avoid the ubiquitous German patrols rounding up boys his age for service or labor. Fellini was twenty-three and Masina was twenty-two. In Fellini’s estimation, “Giulietta was really older, because she was more mature and better educated. She came from a more sophisticated background.” Still, he called her Lo Spippolo: a small, tender thing.
…Gelsomina was the role that made Masina’s career, and La Strada was the film that made Fellini’s. Of all the parts he wrote for her, Fellini said, “the character of Gelsomina is the one I most based on the character of Giulietta.” It’s easy to take the claim the wrong way: Gelsomina is childlike to the point of deficiency. And some of her expressive habits are in fact based on pictures Fellini had seen of Masina at eight or ten years old. But it was the woman he shared his life with that inspired him: “As a person, she was still that sheltered girl who looked with awe at the mysteries of life … She was open to finding delights, her own nature remained young, innocent and trusting.”