La strada (1954)


(director/writer: Federico Fellini; screenwriters: Ennio Flaiano/Tullio Pinelli; cinematographer: Otello Martelli; editor: Leo Cattozzo; music: Nino Rota; cast: Giulietta Masina (Gelsomina), Anthony Quinn (Zampano), Richard Basehart (il Matto “The Fool”), Aldo Silvani (Mr. Giraffa), Marcella Rovere (La Vedova), Livia Venturini (La Suorina); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Dino De Laurentiis/Carlo Ponti; Criterion Collection; 1954-Italy-in Italian with English subtitles)

“It’s the film that first brought international acclaim to Fellini.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This was a transitional film for Italian director Federico Fellini (“Fellini Satyricon”/”Juliet of the Spirits”/”Ginger and Fred”), who attempted to make a break from Italian neorealism (using it as a stepping stone and not an end all). He would later on move more fully into personal surrealistic fanciful films where symbols and metaphors hold sway. It’s the film that first brought international acclaim to Fellini (it also was the first film to establish his famous signature “Felliniesque” circus motif). Some notables such as Andre Bazin claimed it was a masterpiece. I saw it more as a well-paved stylish accessible road picture that did a good job hiding the filmmaker’s sentimentality (the heroine, with a heart of gold, is like a Chaplinesque waif to the boorish protagonist who mistreats the innocent for no reason but that he’s a twisted soul) by making his traveled road a realistic circus-like look at the desolate provincial towns it passes through as a tragicomedy for pain, cruelty and suffering. Fellini’s modern-day parable is cowritten with Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli, and it tells of an itinerant strong man and the simpleminded girl in his bondage who is his foil, mistress and helper in a traveling circus. It’s finely filmed in black and white (most effectively at night) by photographer Otello Martelli to give it a dark look, and the score by Nino Rota is memorable

Zampano (Anthony Quinn), the gypsy, a traveling circus strong-man of questionable character (he’s a whoring and drunken wastrel), buys a young simple-minded woman, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina, wife of the director), from her destitute peasant mother for merely a few lire so she can repair a roof and he makes her his assistant and clown in his circus routine (he breaks chains wrapped around his chest). Gelsomina is replacing her dead sister, who Zampano previously bought. Zampano treats the affection seeking woman like dirt and mainly ignores her, as they both bask in loneliness. Things pick up steam when Zampano beats and accidentally kills the gentle clown/high-wire tightrope walker il Matto (Richard Basehart), known as The Fool, someone who uses his wit to taunt the strongman and someone Zampano’s jealous of because of his inner strength and because his slave-girl admires him more than anyone else. The kind-hearted Matto befriended Gelsomina and broke her spell of loneliness. Matto’s senseless death causes the lonely woman to die eventually of a broken heart, as the abusive Zampano abandons the faithful assistant because he doesn’t want her around anymore to remind him of his foul deed.

The film has a mythic quality as Fellini symbolically connects Gelsomina to the water, Zampano to the earth and the Fool to the air. It has less to do with depicting a craven capitalist society, as the Marxists wished neorealist films to hold to and more with exploring the “poetry of the solitary man.” It was a step in the right direction for Fellini and enabled him to advance his filmmaking to achieve his later greater films such as La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963).