La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954): Italy

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed on DVD.

  An elfish, insignificant woman wanders about the seaside, gazing out over the horizon, as distant voices call to her “Gelsomina!  Gelsomina!”

Gelsomina (Guilietta Masina) comes from a poor family with many younger siblings.  Her mother has just accepted 10,000 lire from Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a performer in a strongman act, in exchange for Gelsomina replacing her recently deceased sister, as his “partner.”

A brutish womanizer, Zampano brags that he can “even teach dogs.”  Casually pulling a switch from a nearby bush, he lashes it across Gelsomina, in order to extract a more commanding performance from her.  The much sheltered Gelsomina quickly learns to clown and play the snare drum, performs for the audience while introducing Zampano’s act, and passes along a hat for tips.

After Zampano forces himself on her, days later he abandons her, and runs off with a woman he managed to pick up during a meal with Gelsomina!  Finding him hungover in a field, Gelsomina begins to accept  Zampano as her partner, but yearns for love and devotion.

While traveling, the two meet up with a kindly nun who offers food and shelter for the night, and is repaid in theft by Zampano.  They also have the good fortune to perform for a wedding party, and are generously fed and sheltered, but not before Zampano engages in a tryst with the hostess of the party.

Eventually Zampano strikes a deal to join a traveling group, but to his dismay, is re-acquainted with Il Matto the Fool (Richard Basehart), a high-wire artist, and an old nemesis.  Il Matto constantly provokes Zampano, but befriends Gelsomina.  He attempts to teach her other performance skills, with the intent of making her a new partner, but realizing her loyalty, he explains to Gelsomina that everything has its purpose in life, even a “small pebble,” suggesting instead that maybe her purpose is to care for Zampano.  Soon after, tragedy rears its ugly head.

1954 was a transitional period for Italian neorealism, moving away from the subject of post WWII economic struggles and oppression, as in The Bicycle Thief, to more interpersonal conflicts and tragedies of the human emotions.

La Strada depicts the sinuous road of life, with its many twists and turns, and unexpected heartbreaks, where harmless creatures like Gelsomina can barely survive the cruelties of characters like Zampano, who exist by numbing their pain with distractions.

Following Gelsomina’s character through a street parade, in close ups and visible camera movement, Fellini manages to capture a documentary feel, and continues the fluid camera movements throughout, which contributes to a naturally evolving story.

The sea is a recurring motif, associated with Gelsomina and her open and abiding spirit, while a leitmotif is simply played on the violin by Il Matto’s character, and eventually becomes the mournful tune of Gelsomina.

Guilietta Masina, wife of Fellini, has a natural and uninhibited style, and is a terrific contrast to Anthony Quinn’s intense persona.

La Strada won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.




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