La Strada (1954)

“Thank you, thank you. Now, to do this feat, I must fill myself up like a tire. If a blood vessel should break, I would spit blood. For instance, in Milan a man weighing 240 pounds lost his eyesight doing this trick. That is because the optical nerves take a beating, and once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away because there could be blood.”

‘La Strada’, directed by Federico Fellini in 1954, tells the story of a female clown called Gelsomina who travels with Zampanò, a brutish strongman played by Anthony Quinn. In their travels, Gelsomina learns the craft of comedy and finds a degree of worth, but an encounter with a circus performer, Il Matto, makes her realise that there may be other options. The movie has a more linear narrative than Fellini’s later movies, the plot is told sequentially and simply, but the themes of carnival, possession and tragedy, and the imagery of the sea, of snow falling and the focus on the faces of the characters are all connections with films such as ‘La Dolce Vita’, ‘Roma’ and ‘Amarcord’. What makes ‘La Strada’ such a distinct movie is the triangular relationship between Gelsomina, Zampanò and Il Matto, a trinity of strong characters that seem to embody primal archetypes. This is emphasised by the stylised but complex performances of the actors, Quinn in particular is frighteningly physical, whilst Giulietta Masina, who plays Gelsomina, is loveable and expressive. It’s telling though that these characters, whilst cyphers, don’t remain static. By the end of the film, an a devastating final scene, Zampanò is shown physically incapacitated by grief, whilst we see the talkative and ever-present Gelsomina gradually losing the power to articulate until, by the end, she is absent from the film completely. It’s this complexity, combined with Fellini’s magnificent eye for imagery and light comedy, that makes the movie great. For me it doesn’t have the dreamlike quality of ‘8 ½’ or ‘La Dolce Vita’, but when viewed in tandem with his later films, ‘La Strada’ can be seen as the foundation of Fellini’s rich and strange cinematic universe.

Would I recommend it? Yup – Fellini – of course. Maybe a double-bill with ‘8 ½’ for the carnival aspects, or even ‘Pierrot le Fou’ for a contrasting movie with a similar narrative trajectory.

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