LA STRADA (1954, Italy)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Federico Fellini
Cast: Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 98% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A child-like woman is sold to a traveling entertainer, consequently enduring physical and emotional pain along the way.

Fellini’s La strada, the very first film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, is widely considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, a touchstone of the Italian neo-realist movement that grew out of Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952).  Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you that, while I appreciate these kinds of films, they are not exactly my bread and butter.  There are some Italian movies that I will probably never watch, and I am quite sure I won’t miss them.  However, I am happy I finally sat and watched La strada.

But why?  La strada is not a happy movie by any stretch of the imagination.  It tells the story of a vaudevillian strongman, Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), who entertains street crowds by stretching a chain across his chest muscles until it breaks.  When the movie opens, he is paying the mother of a large family 10,000 lire for Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), a child-like woman with a hugely expressive face.  For that princely sum, she will leave her family forever and learn a trade as Zampanò’s assistant.

They hit the road.  Zampanò is not a very nice man.  He teaches Gelsomina the basics but refuses to let her learn any more than is necessary.  When they eat dinner at a restaurant, he picks up a local floozy and ditches Gelsomina for the night.  When she tries to run away, he runs after her and beats her.  When they take up with a traveling circus, he refuses to let her perform with anyone else but him.  Gelsomina despairs of her existence, but she has convinced herself she can’t leave because she can’t think of anywhere else to go.

In a traveling circus, Gelsomina meets a carefree acrobat/clown known only as The Fool (Richard Basehart).  The Fool lives up to his name: performing dangerous high-wire acts and recklessly teasing Zampanò for no apparent reason, even heckling Zampanò during his act.  This is not a smart man, but he manages to steal a quiet moment with Gelsomina where, in his own way, he tries to let her know that her life has a purpose because EVERYTHING has a purpose, even a pebble he picks up off the ground.  “I don’t know what this pebble’s purpose is, but it must have one, because if this pebble has no purpose, then everything is pointless.  Even the stars!”

Examine that statement closely enough and it’s not quite as life-affirming as it seems, but it lights a spark in Gelsomina’s otherwise bleak existence.  From then on, she holds fast to that conversation, referring back to it when new hardships or doubts arise.  Meanwhile, Zampanò remains as cold and ruthless as ever, even trying to steal from a convent.

And then something unexpected happens that seems as if it will finally break Zampanò’s hold on Gelsomina, but no.  Gelsomina clings to the belief that her purpose is to be with Zampanò, no matter what happens or how miserable she might become.

…so, yeah, this isn’t exactly a happy film.  This is not the kind of movie I would normally seek out.  But in its bleakness, it achieves a kind of aching beauty, like Atonement (2007) or The Remains of the Day (1993).

A lot of that beauty is achieved through the must-see performance by Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina.  It’s clear that Gelsomina is stuck in a woman’s body but with the emotional maturity of a child.  Is she developmentally disabled?  The movie never makes it clear.  Perhaps she simply chose to retain her innocence while the rest of the world moved on around her.  In that way, she becomes almost like a character in a fairy tale.  I found myself wondering if the movie would have played the same had Gelsomina been a child rather than a grown woman.  It might have played a lot like the sequence in Pinocchio (1940) when he is captured by Stromboli and forced to perform for street crowds.

Masina’s performance as Gelsomina would be the single best reason I can think of to recommend this movie to anyone who might not otherwise watch it.  Her face and eyes light up like candles on a birthday cake when she smiles.  When she frowns, she puts clown makeup to shame.  And when she dons clown makeup herself and dances and plays the trombone, you can’t help but grin a little.  When she weeps because she can’t see The Fool anymore, she sounds like a little girl who’s lost a pet.  It’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.

That performance is key to the movie.  Zampanò’s cruelty and dismissive nature masks his own fear of Gelsomina’s innocence.  He keeps her down because he doesn’t dare allow himself to believe he might be in the wrong.  Watching the movie, we allow ourselves to hope that perhaps Zampanò will reach a turning point where he throws himself at Gelsomina’s feet, begging forgiveness for his terrible behavior and past misdeeds.  But will it happen in time to make a difference?

On the Criterion Blu-ray of La strada, director Martin Scorsese states in an interview that, if you’ve never seen a Fellini film in your life, you could watch La strada and 8 ½ (1963) and you’d know all there is to know about Fellini and his films.  I’m certainly no Fellini expert, but that sounds accurate to me.  La strada contains all the seeds – the score, the performances, the circus theme – that come to fruition in 8 ½.  But La strada is the more accessible of those two films, in my opinion.  If you’re going to start somewhere, start here.

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