La Strada (1954)
Written by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, and Ennio Flaiano
Directed by Federico Fellini
Some of the best filmmakers, living & dead, talk about coming to their projects based on a feeling or intuition. Fellini found La Strada through a tone he felt, described by the director as “a diffused sense of guilt, like a shadow hanging over me. This feeling suggested two people who stay together, although it will be fatal, and they don’t know why.” Images came to Fellini while he meditated on this feeling: snow falling on a quiet ocean, clouds, a nightingale singing. As with many of his greatest films, Fellini was profoundly inspired by his wife Giulietta Masina; pictures of her as a child helped him see La Strada’s central character. And his hometown of Remini, a place that became mythologized in his movies, provided the director with inspiration. He recalled the story of a pig castrator that was a known womanizer. The man impregnated a mentally handicapped woman in the town and cast her aside, claiming the baby was “the devil’s child.”
Gelsomina (Masina) is a simple-minded young woman whose life is suddenly upended. Her sister Rosa died on the road with carnival strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn). He’s returned to the family’s home, offering money to take Gelsomina with him as a replacement. Gelsomina’s single mother is desperate for cash and agrees to the deal. A dynamic emerges between Gelsomina and Zampano, his gruff demeanor contrasted by her natural silliness. She becomes a clown, a counterpoint to his harrowing chain-breaking performances, and it seems to work.
Behind the scenes, his brutish nature worsens, leading to him raping Gelsomina and then sleeping with many other women, leaving her confused about her relationship with this man. After reaching her breaking point, Gelsomina runs away and meets another performer Il Matto (Richard Baseheart), who shows her a different way of living. Zampano eventually seizes what he sees as his, and the duo joins a traveling circus to make more consistent money. Il Matto happens to work in the same circus, so the tensions grow; Gelsomina is caught in the middle and wondering which direction she should go.
Italian neorealism was the style of the day in post-War Italy, and Fellini was undoubtedly one of those directors in his early years. But with La Strada, he began to break away, an entirely new method and style of filmmaking congealing around this work. The elements of the story feel at once simple; the characters, the setting, and the plot are all very familiar to anyone who enjoys storytelling. But it’s in the telling where Fellini finds his personal touches, and that tone, this melancholy happiness surrounding life, will be the key to understanding all of the filmmaker’s work. He acknowledges the brutal hardships of life, particularly in a culture rebuilding itself from the physical destruction of the War and the spiritual devastation of fascism.
The simplicity of La Strada comes from the fact that it is a parable, a tale meant to be told with a moral at the end. Parables are not overly complicated narratives that would undermine their purpose. The complexity comes from the honest emotional portrayals of these characters and how their situations are never resolved satisfactorily. The melancholic tone arises from the growing sense that, like the titular road, these lives keep going on and on, new lives are born while others end, but there’s never really an ending, just a road stretching into the horizon forever. That’s a hopeful thing on the one hand, but also sad for those whose lives are not ones we envy, the marginalized and struggling who just want the kind of contentment so many of us take for granted.
Fellini and Masina are evoking the early film escapades of Charlie Chaplin, the Little Tramp. While he’s often remembered as a great comedic talent, his work as a performer, director, and writer was always centered on deeply felt humanistic portrayals of life. Gelsomina is a Chaplin figure, silent but soulful, her eyes taking in everything and reflecting a happy sadness. These ciphers allow the audience to impose themselves, and our journey is like Gelsomina’s, searching for meaning & purpose. She’s told everyone’s purpose is to serve another, and hers must be to serve Zampano. Gelsomina follows that advice even though it proves not to benefit her. We see that Zampano truly believes his purpose is to indulge himself, giving in to every gluttonous & lustful desire that crosses his mind. She appears to find solace in Il Matto, but even he diminishes her, talking about Gelsomina being ugly and viewing her as a fun distraction rather than a person deserving of love.
One of the hallmarks for me when it comes to Fellini’s work is that he uses the Italian language so that you can shut off the subtitles and still be hit with the total emotional weight of the work. The words add textual poetry to the visual magic he’s doing, but you don’t need them to feel the film. La Strada is a monumental work, happening just at the start of one of the most incredible explosions of creativity in cinema we’ve ever seen from one filmmaker. So many directors that followed this movie have been chasing it, trying to tell a story of such import in such simple terms, and few have come close to matching La Strada.