When Federico Fellini’s La Strada opened in theaters in 1954, left-wing Italian critics were confused. They spent the entire experience looking for the director’s political message and they couldn’t find one. This was a change because Fellini had previously made films in the neorealistic tradition. But all La Strada seemed to have was a good story and great acting and how are you supposed to turn the world into a socialist paradise with that? However, those in the audience who were less brainwashed loved what they saw.
Working for a traveling strongman
Not that the director had created something entirely new with his film. After all, the locations seemed just as real as they did in the neorealistic movies of the 1940s. The story begins with Zampanó (Anthony Quinn), a traveling strongman, offering an elderly woman money for her slow-witted daughter, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), whom he sees as a suitable assistant. The woman is in dire need of cash and decides to go along with it. Gelsomina leaves her hometown to travel with Zampanó. He has his routine where he breaks an iron chain with his chest; Gelsomina’s job is to bang on a drum, collect money from the audience and cook food. Eventually they run into The Fool (Richard Basehart), another artist who serves as an acrobat and clown. A jolly fellow, he is the direct opposite of Zampanó and charms Gelsomina.
But he also has a tendency to take every chance he can to irritate Zampanó, and that would be fine if the strongman was able to tolerate jokes. Zampanó is not a happy human being. He’s rough, drinks too much, his female companionship consists of hookers and he treats Gelsomina like dirt. She’s on the verge of leaving him all the time, but somehow ends up back in his company. As time passes, the antagonism between Zampanó and The Fool becomes even worse and threatens to destroy whatever chance of happiness there is for those involved in the struggle.
Apparent interest in vaudeville
Fellini had always nursed an interest in Italian vaudeville and that is apparent here; even though the main characters are subjected to all kinds of misery, they are still part of a grand tradition entertaining the poor people on the countryside.
Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, delivers perhaps her best performance as the simple-minded Gelsomina, who is genuinely enthralled by the art of vaudeville but is constantly let down by the man she works for; she develops a relationship with the much more positive Fool, but it is eventually Zampanó who accidentally forever ruins her chances of a happy future. Quinn is perfect for that part, convincing in every sequence as the brute; how clever of him and the director to make us hate him so much, which makes the final sequence where Zampanó learns whatever happened to Gelsomina powerful. Of course, Basehart is also quite effective as the man who knows how to drive the strongman crazy.
Nino Rota’s music score has an important part in the story; he wrote a tune that was not only a signature theme for Gelsomina but also became crucial to the final scenes.
I have to say it is quite peculiar to imagine socialist critics dumping on this film. After all, it is very down-to-earth, portraying working-class people in a very straightforward way, and there is absolutely no message that right-wingers would sympathize with. Then again, Italian left-wingers of that time seemed unable to use any other body parts but their minds. And this is a film that goes straight to your heart.
La Strada 1954-Italy. 115 min. B/W. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Carlo Ponti. Directed by Federico Fellini. Screenplay: Federico Fellino, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano. Music: Nino Rota. Cast: Anthony Quinn (Zampanó), Giulietta Masina (Gelsomina), Richard Basehart (The Fool), Aldo Silvani, Marcella Rovere, Livia Venturini.
Trivia: The film was turned into a musical, which closed down after one performance.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film (first winner of that prize). Venice: Silver Lion.
Last word: “‘La Strada’ is really the complete catalog of my entire mythical or shadow world, a dangerous representation of my identity undertaken without precaution. The point of departure of that film, apart from the spectacle of nature and the fascination with gypsy-like travels, was the story of an enlightenment, a shaking of conscience, through the sacrifice of another human creature.” (Fellini, “Bert Cardullo: Soundings on Cinema”)