La Strada (The Road) (1954)

Old clown road

Why is it so much more poignant to watch a person have an existential crisis if they are a clown? When Richard Basehart’s jester character picks up a rock uses it to explain to Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) that everything in this world has a purpose from God, and Gelsomina in turn wonders what purpose such a homely little stone could ever have, it’s obvious they are talking about themselves. It’s not an especially novel metaphor, and in other circumstances, it could be downright trite. But coming from the lips of one wandering circus performer to another in this specific film, it feels like a seminal moment of cinema, and I can’t entirely explain why.

La Strada — which translates to “The Road,” though the English-speaking world usually just calls it by its Italian name — is Federico Fellini’s third solo-directed film and his first great achievement. Its roaming-loser melodrama is unremarkable on the surface, yet it accumulates power as the runtime progresses. Its narrative is understated, even ambivalent, as it shirks away from the obvious narrative beats towards unfulfilling anticlimax and tragedy. Its tearjerking twists are all the more gutting because they’re not clearly projected by the plot.

The film has a fabulistic bent to it, as the three main characters each have archetypal properties: Gelsomina, the simple, tender, and loyal woman. Zampano (Anthony Quinn), the inarticulate and brutish but persevering strongman. And Basehart’s unnamed “Il Matto,” the quick-witted and peevish prankster. But Fellini resists the urge to heighten the story. La Strada is much less arch and ornate in style than his later masterpieces. The low-key style fits the bleak subject matter well.

Even though it rarely calls attention to itself, Fellini’s filmmaking here is terrific. It’s an unadorned launching pad for the rich invention of his showy mid-career peaks like 8 1/2, but has plenty of lovely touches nonetheless. In particular, Fellini makes clever use of the relationship between two people in frame and the way this evokes their evolving relationship, whether it’s Zampano lurking, hunched behind Gelsomina during a circus performance, his imposing presence drowning out her whimsy; or, a beautiful shot when Zampano works on a car engine, Gelsomina framed by the hood of the car in the distance, her heart distant and dreamy though she’s still linked to the down-to-earth strongman.

With a few noteworthy exceptions, the on-location shooting takes place in dusty, dreary settings, which makes the few moments of natural grandeur (e.g. a stop at a beach late in the film) even more stirring. The settings add up to a sad postwar Italy sprinkled with beauty and hope if you know where to look.

As with all of his films, Fellini takes time to ponder the spiritual elements of the world surrounding his characters. The film is drowning in Christian themes and imagery. One of the film’s best episodes takes place at a nuns’ convent, which brings out the best and the worst of the film’s characters. When Gelsomina and Zampano are forced to stay in the barn because there’s no spare beds, it echoes the Nativity. But rather than birthing salvation, the evening instead reveals a petty cruelty by Zampano who has no use for the sacred. It’s a pivotal moment in the story, as it dispels the idea that a benevolent narrative force from above will guide these characters to happy endings.

The film is scored by Nino Rota, Fellini’s frequent collaborator. It’s a lovely score built around a recurring theme that starts non-diegetic but gradually seeps into the world, in particular a reveal near the middle of the film’s runtime showing “Il Matto” playing it on a fiddle. The motif becomes symbolic of Gelsomina’s spark for a better life; and the further that dream of happiness falls out of reach, the more tragic weight the tune carries.

The acting is great all around, but my favorite performance comes from Masina, who is becoming one of my favorite actresses. She has one of the best faces in all of cinema, wide and round and expressive. (There’s an amusing runner where characters compare her appearance to bland vegetables, which couldn’t be further than the truth.) Her mannerisms and costuming here pull heavily from Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. This fits her character, which is naive and tragicomic, the constant victim of bad luck.

La Strada is an inflection point for Italian film. While still heavily rooted in the realistic, political, slightly dreary style of postwar neorealism, it eschews obvious social commentary in favor of a story that’s more introspective and ambiguous. It won the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion, beating out the more pure piece of neorealism, Senso by Luchino Visconti. The ceremony broke into a brawl between the two films’ crews and supporters, symbolic of diverging voices in European film.

As with every Fellini film in different degrees, La Strada sprinkles in so much cynicism and cruelty towards its characters that I find parts of it exhausting and beautiful in equal measure. Zampano in particular is an unpleasant brute to spend so much time with. But there’s so much life and heart in the film, its characters and stories so beguiling and compelling despite the humble exteriors, that La Strada is an enduring triumph.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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