La Strada (1954)

D: Federico Fellini
S: Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina

"We have not even scratched the surface of Italian life," remarked Federico Fellini in an interview given in 1957 in response to criticisms that his increasingly radical departure from the accepted norms of Italian cinema was not true to the experience of contemporary Italians. In 1956, he had won the first of his four Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film (the first ever 'official' award in this category) with La Strada. It was an adult fairytale which combined the verismo style with something altogether more personal. Fellini had begun to articulate his own beliefs as an artist above the social concerns which had characterised most post-war Italian films.

Though it was still closer in many respects to its predecessors in Italian neo-realism than what would follow, its loose narrative structure and occasional flashes of surreal, symbolic action inspired some angry responses from left wing writers. This was not reality, they argued, and world audiences should not assume that the film represented Italy as it really was.

La Strada is not concerned with Italy as it was to either left or right wing observers, or even as it was for ordinary citizens. The film centres on the world as seen through the eyes of a childlike woman, Gelsomina (hauntingly played by Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina) who is taken on as an assistant by a brutish, uncommunicative travelling strongman, Zampano, (played by Anthony Quinn) who barely treats her as a person.

Her unique understanding of the world produces a film of eerie poetry. Gelsomina sees the harsh and cruel day to day existence initially as a strange adventure. As they travel along the road (which assumes a very definite symbolic function), she encounters a variety of people and places for the first time, and only faintly seems to understand her place in life.

When an encounter with a circus clown awakens in her a new sense of herself, the violent response of her master breaks something within her, and she leaves him to travel alone. Years later he hears a snatch of song on the wind which reminds him of her and finally realises that he too has lost something unique and beautiful.

La Strada examines the relationship between reality as it is perceived and as it is experienced. It is an emotional odyssey which finally centres as much on Zampano as Gelsomina. It is concerned with themes of the individual in society, and a search for meaning in a person's life relative to their environment.

Like its immediate predecessors in the neo-realist movement, La Strada features an Italy wracked with social and economic difficulties. The towns and villages Gelsomina and Zampano visit are not exactly picturesque or affluent. The film reflects something of the authentic environment of post-war Italy and quietly addresses the questions about the nature of Italian society which this raises.

Yet by setting his film in the world of performers, Fellini also highlights an expressive element of human behaviour not seen in other films of the time. Zampano's character is reflected in his strongman act. His bravado and excess of masculinity is ritualised through overt demonstration, and the changing hues of the act reflect changes in the man as Gelsomina begins to have an influence over his own perceptions of life. Gelsomina's innocence frequently transforms scenes of depravity and hardship into sites of celebration and magic. Entering a town during a major festival becomes a phantasmagoria of sight and sound, a virtual wonderland to which she responds with unrestrained joy.

These things far exceeded the brief of previous Italian social dramas, and more clearly spoke of the creator behind them than the society from which he came. To many observers of the time, this was unwelcome. To others it was a pomise of things to come. In retrospect it can be seen as the beginning of the emergence of a unique cinematic sensibility from within a culture, but which inflected its concerns about that culture through ideas of the self, which is where Fellini was always most at home.

This would later take him to excesses which alienated as many people as they intrigued (8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits), but it would also free him (and others) to bring an extraordinary eye to ordinary things which would often make the films all the more affecting (La Dolce Vita, Amarcord).

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.