Fellini's masterpiece about love and solitude

La Strada (1954)

Directed by Federico Fellini

Written by Federico Fellini and Tullio Pinelli, with collaboration of Ennio Flaiano

Rated M,  108 minutes

4.5 stars

Last Saturday (October 30, 2004) would have been the 61st wedding anniversary of Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina, if they had still been with us. In a way, they still are: we have La Strada, a film that’s at least partly about their relationship.

They married in secret in Rome in 1943, when Fellini was still a struggling artist and writer, hiding out from the military draft. He was 23, she was 22. He had written a radio series in which she starred.          ‘She was so tiny and needed my protection,’ he wrote in I, Fellini, a ghosted memoir. ‘She was innocent, trusting, sweet, good. I towered over her…I had never impressed anyone that much before’.

In La Strada, which he co-wrote for her ten years later, she plays Gelsomina, a child/woman who’s innocent, trusting, sweet and good, a character driven by her gift for love. Anthony Quinn plays Zampano, who’s none of those things, and towers over her. He’s a showman by trade and a womaniser, like Fellini, although much more of a roughneck knuckleman. Zampano has been shortchanged so often by life that he has grown sly and suspicious. Only in drink does he find any expansion of spirit – although Gelsomina changes him.

In the first scene, he literally buys her from her mother, for 10,000 lire. Gelsomina has grown up dirt poor by the sea, and she is the second child to go with Zampano, a lone wolf circus performer. She is sold even though her elder sister has died in his charge. And she’s so innocent and eager to see the world that she wants to go with him. ‘I’ll learn how to sing and dance,’ she cries. They take to the road (‘la strada’, in Italian) in his noisy American motorcycle, which has a gypsy trailer built onto the back. We see a tearful Gelsomina waving to her family as she leaves – a scene that’s repeated in different contexts throughout, each time with deeper sadness.

Zampano teaches her to blow a trumpet and bang a drum and shout ‘Here comes Zampano’. He also teaches her about sex, within the limitations of what he knows. The first time, this makes her cry, then smile at him as he sleeps. The trouble comes when they join a proper circus. Richard Basehart plays a tightrope-walking clown who has a grudge against Zampano. They fight on sight, especially when Gelsomina responds openly to the clown’s overtures. In life, the situation was the other way round – Masina was constantly dismayed and hurt by Fellini’s infidelities.

Masina’s performance is initially startling, because it’s so stylised, like a silent comedienne, but she pulls it off by the force of her conviction. ‘Of all of my films in which Giulietta appears, the character of Gelsomina is the one I most based on the actual character of Giulietta,’ he wrote. ‘Gelsomina personified innocence betrayed, so Giulietta was the perfect actress to be Gelsomina’.

The film’s lyricism, aided by Nino Rota’s superb score, broke with the prevailing style and ideology of Italian neo-realism, then at its height. In 1954, leftist ideology held strong appeal for many Italian critics and film-makers, and Fellini’s view of poverty was not in step – one reason the film was attacked. La Strada is not strictly a film about the degrading social effects of poverty, although there’s plenty of poverty in it. Gelsomina and Zampano are both formed by it, but it produces different traits in them (not just despair).

For Fellini, it was much more a film ‘about loneliness, and how solitude can be ended when one person makes a profound link to another.’ It’s about the love between him and Giulietta, in other words, and his view of his own flaws. That’s one reason people responded so warmly to it.

La Strada won the 1956 Oscar for best foreign language film. This revival, for the film’s 50th anniversary, is not based on a restoration but a new print, struck from reasonable sources.