La Strada may be almost 60 years old, but Federico Fellini’s masterpiece is in the news,” writes Columbia film professor Annette Insdorf. “In an interview published late last week, Pope Francis called La Strada his favorite film. Some might have expected a more church-friendly movie, like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City — which Fellini co-wrote — about a priest helping the Italian Resistance fight Nazi occupiers during World War Two. While he also mentions it, the pontiff’s favorite choice crystallizes his embrace of the fallible and the marginalized.

“Consistent with his refusal to speak out against traditional hot-button topics like abortion, contraception and homosexuality, Pope Francis reveals in this movie selection a humanism that links him to the Italian director of such other classics as 8 1/2, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and Amarcord.

“It is unclear when the pope saw La Strada. Born in Argentina, he would have been a teenager when it was first released. ‘I identify with this movie, in which there is an implicit reference to St. Francis,’ he recalls. ‘I also believe that I watched all of the Italian movies with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi when I was between 10 and 12 years old. Another film that I loved is Rome, Open City. I owe my film culture especially to my parents, who used to take us to the movies quite often.”

“In referring to his namesake, the pontiff brings to mind the Franciscan quality of compassion, a non-judgmental rather than dogmatic attitude toward human beings.

“’I see the holiness,’ he said, ‘in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity.’

“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.

“Perhaps this pope loves a sad clown, a fool and even a sinner like Zampano as much as a saint.”