A fresh viewing of La Strada (The Road) directed by Frederico Fellini has provided me with a renewed appreciation for this 1954 black & white classic.
The movie has a fairly standard story arc with a beginning – middle – end, but this is no ordinary movie. This is a Fellini movie. The dialogue is masterfully spare, the scenes visually interesting and the action moves the story forward at an even yet unrushed pace. For those who haven’t seen the movie there are two protagonists: Gelsomina played by Giulietta Masina and Zampano played by Anthony Quinn. A third character, Il Matto played by Richard Basehart, is introduced about half way through the movie. Gelsomina is the “simple” country girl who works for the strongman, Zampano. Il Matto is the tightrope walker who is intrigued by Gelsomina and constantly taunts and teases Zampano (at his own peril).
La Strada is less surreal than other Fellini movies although there are the “Fellini-esque” touches that we know and love so well. For example, during a wedding in which Gelsomina and Zampano are part of the entertainment, children coax Gelsomina away from the party to visit their brother who is kept cloistered in an upper room. It’s a distinctly odd scene but also very touching. We see Gelsomina and the boy nearly make a connection before she is shoved out the door by an irate relative. The boy’s wild eyes reflect astonishment but no recognition and her look of innocent fascination really stay with you. There is also a scene in which Gelsomina is sitting dejected and alone by the side of the road when three musicians enter the scene, traipsing across the countryside playing their instruments. Gelsomina joins them, dancing free form to the music. No word is spoken.
What I found truly haunting upon my second viewing was the deep pain the protagonists are in and the crushing poignancy of almost every scene in which Giulietta Masina is featured. All Fellini movies have beautiful scenes, but few have as many poignant scenes as La Strada. For example, in an early scene, Gelsomina’s mother says goodbye to her, fully knowing that she is sending her naïve and “simple” daughter away with a rough, likely abusive character. The image of the mother mopping her face with a large white handkerchief is unforgettable. [Spoiler Alert] Another intensely memorable scene is the fatal encounter between Il Matto and Zampano. The raw violence and Gelsomina’s horrified reaction are palpable. Another truly unforgettable scene is at the end of the movie when Zampano learns that Gelsomina had wasted away and died after he abandoned her on the side of the road. We watch as he loses his mind on the beach, apparently fully realizing his part in precipitating her death.
The movie is also an insight into the lives of itinerant entertainers who enter our lives for a few minutes or hours and then move on (to where no one knows or cares). They live on the outskirts of town, on roadsides or in temporary encampments. They are looked upon as curiosities. They are not seen as people so much as caricatures. They are not individuals so much as the characters they play (in this case, strongman and clown). The only time the protagonists are accepted for who they are is when they briefly join a circus.
When Zampano is not performing he is merely surviving. He shows no inclination to do anything other than satisfy his most basic desires. Without his persona (strongman) he would be invisible. In fact he appears to want to be invisible. In contrast, Gelsomina is always herself, whether playing the clown or not. She is her own person. There is no act, no filter, no put-on persona. Does she want more out of life? She certainly wishes that Zampano needed her as something more than a sleeping companion and sidekick. The real tragedy of the movie is Gelsomina’s utter loyalty to and unconditional love for Zampano, a loyalty/love he betrays again and again. She is a true innocent, he is a true narcissist. He uses her up and casts her aside and only learns to appreciate her after she’s gone. How often has this scenario played out over the ages?
The film was a sensation when it was released (the first academy award given in the foreign language category) and we can imagine how shocking it must have been for 1950’s American audiences due to its adult themes and brutally honest and downright tragic ending. What I like most about the movie is its simple and honest portrayal of two very human, very inconsequential people trying to eke out a living at the fringes of society. But it is also a view of life through the eyes of an emotionally naive person who is at the mercy of an indifferent and brutal world yet manages to see beauty, innocence and humor where most of us would see only darkness and despair.
NOTE: La Strada has been beautifully remastered by The Criterion Collection: https://www.criterion.com/films/185-la-strada
See my thoughts on the CC: https://walkcheerfullyblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/06/the-criterion-collection-what-would-we-do-without-it/
photo: Trans Lux Inc.