In many respects, La Strada, directed by Federico Fellini in 1954, is a drama that sowed the seeds for the director’s later, extravagantly fantastical films, but one that equally has its own, very particular identity. The movie focuses on a circus strongman called Zampano, played by Anthony Quinn. Zampano is brutal and gruff, prone to bursts of rage which, because of his bulk and strength, make him dangerous. Whilst on the lookout for a sidekick for his act, the strongman encounters the daughter of a poor widow played by Giulietta Masina. The daughter, called Gelsomina, is slow with a childlike innocence, but turns out to be a good foil for Zampano, so the strongman buys her and takes her on his tour of the country. He develops an unlikely attraction towards the simple Gelsomina, which is heightened when the girl meets a clown (a fool) in a circus they join. The clown recognises the feelings between Zampano and Gelsomina and backs away, but it is too late and the strongman, in a fit of jealousy, kills him, sending Gelsomina mad.
Fellini’s movies have always been seen to fall into two periods. The first period includes the neo-realist films of the late 1940s and early 1950s including films he scripted for Roberto Rossellini, the second include the films Fellini is best known for: the fantastical, dreamlike Nights of Cabria (1956), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 ½ (1963), and perhaps his final masterpiece Amarcord (1973). La Strada feels like a transitional work, containing elements from both periods. Indeed, it is possible to see the whole film as a conflict between the concerns and anxieties of the neo-realist films (unemployment, poverty, the place of individuals in post-war Italy), and the free-wheeling romance and nostalgia of Fellini’s later oneiric movies.
There are two outstanding performances in this film. Firstly, as the mute Gelsomina, Masina (Fellini’s wife in reality) conveys an almost uncanny sense of childlike wonder. Her approach draws on silent comedy, at times actively pastiching Chaplin, but somehow out-Chaplining the silent movie star through the film. Fellini’s focus on the actress and her shifting, vulnerable emotions, is a key driving force behind the narrative and she becomes a powerful locus of audience identification. Speaking of driving forces, Quinn’s aggressive, charismatic portrayal of the strongman is the perfect foil for Masina. The actor is all muscle, flesh and repressed emotions, as loud and brash as Gelsomina is silent and submissive, the set-up is like a deconstruction of a human being: one character as the body, the other as the spirit. Sandwiched between these two is the fool, an ethereal and enigmatic figure who both provides an alternative for Gelsomina’s hard life, but also ties the two main characters together, like the chains that Zampano uses to demonstrate his strength.
The cinematography is bleak and desolate, something that Fellini returns to particularly in parts of La Dolce Vita and in the closing scenes of 8 ½. Here, the use of landscape seems to emphasise the spirit and lust for freedom that is encapsulated in Gelsomina. The journey she goes on with Zampano is in part an act of liberation, but is also a contradictory imprisonment, both within his grasp and within the mundanity of the world around them. Again, this feels like part of the feeling of transition between neo-realism and fantasy that the film gives out. Fellini succumbed to a breakdown towards the end of directing La Strada, and it is tempting to see the film and the tensions within it, as expressions of his increasing sense of despair.
But this is to unfairly over-emphasise the bleakness. As with all of Fellini’s films, there is a sense of joyful energy about La Strada, the film is filled with circus imagery and play, recurring themes in the director’s later movies. The plot is simple, but this isn’t a bad thing – the basic plight of Gelsomina allows her character to shine through and, by contrast, throws light (by the end of the film, sympathetic light) on her counterpart Zampano. Although the location work can be grim and the ending downbeat and frustratingly ambiguous, there is a life and personality to the film that is heart-warming. The fact that La Strada has recently been adapted into a musical is perhaps a reflection of this life.