A bleak and windswept beach somewhere at the edges of postwar rural Italy. A family in abject poverty scratches out a living at the margins. Sweet and naive Gelsomina is sold by her mother into indentured servitude to the brutal travelling sideshow strongman Zampano, whose sole act is to break a chain he wraps around his chest. Using a whip, as if with a circus animal, he teaches her to play a snare drum and a battered trumpet. They embark on a folktale-like odyssey through a blasted landscape of freighted characters and abstract encounters and symbols.
Federico Fellini cast an immensely charismatic Anthony Quinn as the belligerent Zampano and his wife, the delicately clowning Giulietta Masina, as the saintly Gelsomina. Their gestural, expressive acting was more familiar in the silent era than the talkies. The foil for the central pair is “il Matto” – the Fool, a strange, giggling figure and talented high-wire act, speaking bald truths with a mischievous, skewed compassion. With his violin, the Fool (Richard Baseheart) also contributes one of the film’s exquisite musical themes composed by Nino Rota, whose score evokes the folk traditions of the rural poor.
Gelsomina imagines a life with the Fool away from the privations of her life with Zampano, but the Fool convinces her to stay with him, despite his selfish brutality, because: “Everything serves a purpose, even the stones.”
The Fool can’t help poking fun at Zampano, but the strongman’s brittle pride is all he has, and he beats the Fool to death by the roadside to Gelsomina’s stricken howls of “No”.
As we enter the wintry truth of the final act, we’re left with the recognition that the world won’t end or even be changed by the death of Fool and with him, Gelsomina’s simple dream of redemption in her role in the universe. The expedient unfairness, and brutality of Zampano and the world he represents, will persist.
But Zampano can’t continue to ply his one-trick-pony trade with Gelsomina stricken at the death of the Fool. In a moment of breathtaking cruelty, he abandons her at the roadside high in the snow-covered Abruzzo mountains. The camera looks back at her, a bundle of rags by a dwindling fire as we drive away. This is the moment for tears; certainly the one that gets me. In what seems to be an inevitable descent, Zampano will survive and Gelsomina will die. The desolate road will only stretch into the distance, its verges strewn with innocent fools and hopeful saints.
Only the film’s coda allows us a moment of redemption, as Zampano himself suffers, realising how profoundly alone he has become. He has alienated even his own conscience.
Federico Fellini, giant of film, dies: From the archive, 01 November 1993
It is not so difficult for a film-maker to move us: department-store adverts and soap operas leave me grizzling. Fellini moves us profoundly, not only for Gelsomina but for all the characters in La Strada presided over by their mighty church, their lives circumscribed by superstition, miracles and magic. He makes us see a very specific facet of our lives in them. We feel the compassion Fellini shows to his characters as they’re caught in their existential traps.
In 1954, just before the end of shooting La Strada, Fellini suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1956, the film won the Academy award for best film in a foreign language. A year later, Fellini would once again cast Masina in another tragicomic role, as the prostitute Cabiria in Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) – another film where there is a tension between reality and fantasy. This time he would have her scourged but delivered by fantasy.
I wonder if that was Fellini’s answer to his own predicament – to be saved from existential despair by immersing himself in the fantastical world of film-making. Perhaps La Strada was his question and Le Notti di Cabiria was his answer.
ALTHOUGH Federico Fellini's talents as a director have not been displayed to advantage heretofore in these parts, his "La Strada" ("The Road"), which arrived at the Fifty-second Street Trans-Lux yesterday, is a tribute both to him and the Italian neo-realistic school of film-making.
His story of an itinerant strong man and the simpleminded girl who is his foil and helpmeet is a modern picaresque parable. Like life itself, it is seemingly aimless, disjointed on occasion and full of truth and poetry. Like the principals, it wanders along a sad and sometimes comic path while accentuating man's loneliness and need for love.
We have no idea why "La Strada," which won a prize at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, has not been exposed to American audiences until now. Perhaps it is because Signor Fellini's theme offers neither a happy ending so dear to the hearts of escapists nor a clear-cut and shiningly hopeful plot. Suffice it to say that his study of his principals is honest and unadorned, strikingly realistic and yet genuinely tender and compassionate. "La Strada" is a road well worth traveling.
The story, let it be said at the outset, is, like its protagonists, simplicity itself. A boorish and brutish strong man literally buys a happy but mentally incompetent lass from her impoverished mother to serve as his clown, cook and concubine. She is replacing her sister, who has died. He teaches her some simple routines as they bowl along in his motorcycle-trailer—clowning and simple tunes on a cornet—to serve as a come-on to his pitifully corny act of breaking chains across his chest.
Although her timorousness fades into happiness as they play villages, fairs and country weddings, her idyllic existence is broken when they join a small circus on the outskirts of Rome. Here a clown and high-wire artist goad her man, who is finally jailed for threatening the buffoon with a knife.
The clown, who has invited her to join him on the road, realizes that she is peculiarly dedicated to her hard master and advises her to wait for the bestial strong man.
"Everyone serves some purpose," he tells her, "and perhaps you must serve him."
Later, the pair meet the clown and the strong man beats and unwittingly kills him. Since the girl's constant whimpering serves as the strong man's conscience, he deserts his ill-fated companion. At the drama's climax, when he accidentally learns of her death, he breaks down in sudden and helpless realization of his solitude.
Despite this doleful outline, Signor Fellini has not handled his story in merely tragic or heavily dramatic fashion. In Giulietta Masina (Mrs. Fellini in private life) he has an extremely versatile performer who mirrors the simple passions and anxieties of the child-like girl with rare and acute perception. She is expert at pantomime, funny as the tow-headed, doe-eyed and trusting foil and sentient enough to portray in wordless tension her fear of the man she basically loves.
Anthony Quinn is excellent as the growling, monosyllabic and apparently ruthless strong man, whose tastes are primitive and immediate. But his characterization is sensitively developed so that his innate loneliness shows through the chinks of his rough exterior. As the cheerful and prescient clown, Richard Basehart, like the haunting background score by Nino Rota, provides a humorous but pointed counterpoint to the towering and basically serious delineations of the two principals.
Signor Fellini has used his small cast, and, equally important, his camera, with the unmistakable touch of an artist. His vignettes fill his movie with beauty, sadness, humor and understanding.
Although there are English subtitles and the voices of the Messrs. Quinn and Basehart have been dubbed into Italian, "La Strada" needs no fuller explanations. It speaks forcefully, poetically and often movingly in a universal language.
LA STRADA, story and screen play by Federico Fellini and Tullio Pinelli; dialogue by Signor Pinelli; directed by Signor Fellini; produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti and released by Trans-Lux Films. At the Fifty-second Street Trans-Lux.
Zampano . . . . . Anthony Quinn
Gelsomina . . . . . Giulietta Masina
Matto (The Fool) . . . . . Richard Basehart
Colombaini . . . . . Aldo Silvani
Marcella Rovere and Livia Venturini