#3 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
No one wanted to finance this movie about a young girl sold to a traveling circus performer who ends up dying. I wonder why. It took the international success of I Vitelloni for Fellini to find the money. He cast his wife, Giulietta Masina, as Gelsomina, the simple girl sold to Zampano, played by Anthony Quinn, who worked concurrently on two productions at once (the other was Atilla) and Richard Basehart as the Fool. Taking advantage of the common Italian post-war practice of not capturing sound while filming, Quinn and Basehart were both allowed to speak in their original English but were dubbed over into Italian for the final film. La Strada represented a certain break from the neo-realist movement, but it is interesting to note that the dubbing was common in neo-realist films, which helped to break the reality of the action at a certain point since the dubbing was never perfect.
So, Gelsomina is the eldest living daughter of a poor woman in a seaside community. Zampano shows up with news that Gelsomina’s older sister, Rosa, died under his care, and he offers Gelsomina’s mother 10,000 lira for Gelsomina to replace Rosa. The poor woman feels like she can’t do anything but accept, offering up platitudes about how Zampano will teach Gelsomino a trade in order to assuage her own guilt. However, despite being essentially sold into a form a slavery, Gelsomina privately smiles at the whole series of events with a hat on her heard that she playfully bounces back and forth before anyone can see.
Zampano is a cruel man, though. He rapes Gelsomino the first night they’re alone. He whips her when she can’t get his introduction as he wants. He abandons her in a small town for the night as he goes off to enjoy an evening with a local woman. He treats her poorly during their performances where he tries to put on a large show but is mostly centered around him breaking a chain with his chest, a feat that may be as dangerous as he says but feels very small especially when they join an actual circus later. Through it all, Gelsomina is a fragile creature. She searches for her happiness wherever she can find it like planting some tomatoes on the side of the road as Zampano recovers from a hangover or trying to entertain a small, bedridden child near a wedding that the two have tried to entertained but only got fed instead. She has this constant desire to do good, but Zampano tests that in her.
It gets so bad at one point that Gelsomina simply runs away. She runs to another town where she sees The Fool tightrope walking between two buildings over the town square. Suspended in the air above the ground, he tries to eat a bowl of spaghetti, only to lose it, his chair, and his table to gravity, all while captivating Gelsomina in the square. Eventually, Zampano finds her again, takes her back, and they end up joining a circus where The Fool has also accepted a contract.
Now, Fellini has said that the three characters represents Water (Gelsomina), Earth (Zampano), and Air (The Fool). Others have said that Gelsomina represented the soul, Zampano the body, and The Fool the mind. I feel like devolving the characters to representative elements, though, is a disservice to the characters themselves who feel like much more than just metaphors, and that really comes forward in the later parts of the film.
Gelsomina has a chance to escape Zampano when he and The Fool get into a fight and both get fired from the circus. She could continue on with the circus, but The Fool tells her that everything and everyone has a purpose, even something as insignificant as a pebble. She takes this to mean that her purpose is to help Zampano become a better person, so she becomes determined to stay with him no matter what. She will be the light to him. Being post-war Italian, this doesn’t really work out that well as Zampano and Gelsomina encounter the Fool on the road later where Zampano hits the Fool so his head hits the car behind him and he dies. Gelsomina’s mind breaks at this act of violence, and she can hardly function anymore, stuck in the moment where she wept over the Fool’s dying body, and constantly repeating that the Fool is hurt, leading to Zampano simply abandoning her.
Years pass and Zampano continues his act, joining another small circus and performing his little feat for small crowds. In a small town, he hears the song he had taught Gelsomina and asks the woman singing it about it. She tells him of the girl who had shown up to the town years before, broken and sad, who had sung that song, and eventually died. Now, these two characters (Gelsomina and Zampano) are at the center of the film, but it’s really Zampano’s story in the end. He’s left alone on a beach (the same beach that Gelsomina was found in the town and a similar beach to where the movie began) with nothing but the bitter feeling in his stomach that his loneliness and isolation at that time is entirely his own fault. He hasn’t changed, but he has come to a realization (I’ve read it as “ripened”, which I think is a good way to describe it). I’m not sure I would go so far as to call it a redemption, but it’s certainly redemptive. He doesn’t do anything to make up for his failings as a man responsible for a simple woman, but he does begin to understand his failings that led to his empty life. Gelsomina provided joy and happiness wherever she went, but she was never accepted, especially by Zampano who could have learned the most from her. It’s a sad moment of a man, broken through his own actions and his own inability to love.
Performance is at the center of this film, and Giulietta Masina gets most of the attention. She’s a mixture of Chaplin and Harpo Marx as Gelsomina, and she’s rather captivating, portraying a woman of some limited intelligence who also seems to be relatively self-aware at the same time, implying, to me, that she was mostly sheltered and not stupid. However, Quinn as Zampano is the core of the story, and he plays kind of a monster. He’s fully realized as a man, but he’s definitely a bad man who can’t see the things and people that could make him better right in front of him, preferring to pursue his base desires exclusive to everything else. This ends up making me feel like Gelsomina is an angelic figure, sent to redeem Zampano and only succeeds through her own death.
I’ve read La Strada described as a fable, and I think it fits rather perfectly. It’s a tragic story of a man called to be more than his animalistic instincts but refuses. He ultimately learns his moral lesson, but only at great cost.
This movie is great, perhaps even could be called a masterpiece. It’s tragically sad and affecting, pulling the audience in to the story of these two people with incredible skill.