See La Strada in UCO's Pegasus Theater on November 10, 2004, at 6:00 p.m.  Admission is free.
Photo of John Parris Springer

La Strada

Felliniís Magic-Neo-Realism

John Parris Springer
English Department, University of Central Oklahoma

Along with Roberto Rosselliniís Rome Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sicaís The Bicycle Thief (1948), Federico Felliniís La Strada (1954) is among the most important films of post-war Italian cinema. Rome Open City and The Bicycle Thief are the two films that introduced Italian Neo-Realism to the world and restored Italyís place of prominence in international film culture. But it was Felliniís La Strada, built upon a firm Neo-Realist foundation yet possessing something moreóa fairy-tale-like narrative, resonant with archetypal characters whose lives illuminate the basic truths of the human conditionóthat revealed the full aesthetic richness of Neo-Realism just as it was being transformed by Fellini into something other than a faithful recording of mundane reality. It is this sometimes whimsical, sometimes hallucinatory visual and narrative quality in Felliniís work that distinguished him from his fellow Neo-Realists and which, even more significantly, pointed the way to future styles and directions in world cinema. As meticulously situated as the characters and plot of La Strada are in the particularities of post-war Italian society, La Strada has always conveyed to audiences a certain universal significance which has made it one of the most revered films in world cinema; an artistic masterpiece that transcends national borders to deliver a profound commentary on the nature of the human condition and our most basic needs as sentient creatures.

La Strada possesses a fable-like simplicity that conceals the filmís seemingly unplanned, episodic structure. As a filmmaker who came of age during the flowering of Italian Neo-Realism, Fellini has an unerring instinct in La Strada for creating an often harshly realistic portrayal of post-war Italian society. Certainly the filmís attention to lower class and socially marginalized characters reflects the politics of Neo-Realism and its goal of developing the cinema as a tool for representing and analyzing the experiences of average, ordinary people, an impulse that arises from Neo-Realismís roots in Italian Marxism. Evidence of pervasive poverty and the scarring effects of war are brilliantly incorporated into the mise-en-scene of the film through Felliniís art direction and costume design. His use of actual locations in La Strada, rather than the more easily controlled environment of the film studio, and his use of untrained actors in several minor roles, likewise followed basic Neo-Realist aesthetic principles that aimed at presenting a more authentically realistic image of the world.

But Fellini was always something more than a realist. Every Fellini film possesses a certain ineffable poetry, a sense of magic and wonder that can range from the hilarious to the frightening to the uncanny. He is what I would call, mixing literary and cinematic modes, a "magic neo-realist." In Felliniís films we ultimately encounter a fidelity to something larger and more complex than a strictly empirical notion of social and economic reality. We encounter a highly subjective view of the world, often grotesque and distorted, brimming with both irony and pathos and filtered through Felliniís profoundly humanistic vision as an artist. Indeed, the unique blend of reality and surreality that Felliniís films offer, their deft mingling of the objective and the subjective, reality and dreams, constitute the very essence of that often-used adjective in film criticismóFelliniesque. Felliniís pursuit of his own, personal vision as an artist often made him a controversial figure within Italian film culture, where other directors and critics complained that his films failed to live up to the strict ideological requirements of Neo-Realism. Such complaints had little effect on Fellini, however, who continued to pursue his visionary approach to cinematic storytelling over the course of a nearly 40-year career.

La Strada was Felliniís third film as a director, and it single-handedly established his international reputation as a director of art-house cinema, winning numerous honors and prizes including the Academy Award as best foreign film in 1954. La Strada must also be seen as the product of several fertile collaborative relationships between Fellini and others, most notably his wife, the actress Giuletta Masina who plays the gentle, simple-minded Gelsomina, and the composer Nino Rota, whose musical scores in numerous Fellini films make an enormous contribution to their effectiveness. This is especially the case with La Strada, for which the musical score itself was a huge international hit.

Original movie poster

La Strada means "the road," and the film is best understood as a journey taken by the two main characters: Gelsomina (Masina), a simple-minded young woman who is sold by her family to a brutish, itinerant carnival strong man, Zampano (Anthony Quinn). Traveling the countryside in a crude hutch attached to the strong manís motorbike, Gelsomina is abused and mistreated by Zampano until she is finally driven to madness and death. Along the road they encounter "The Fool," (Richard Basehart) a circus acrobat and clown who teaches Gelsomina that there might be more to life than her servitude to Zampano. The Fool and Zampano are depicted by Fellini as a study in contrasts: the strong manís sullen brutishness and awkward demeanor around others stand in sharp contrast to the graceful and loquacious Fool, whose free-spirited contempt for authority leads him to taunt and ridicule Zampano. Finally the strong man confronts the Fool, and in the fight that follows he accidentally murders him. Gelsomina, already the victim of Zampanoís physical abuse, witnesses the Foolís death, and begins a slow descent into madness. Finally, unwilling and unable to care for the increasingly deranged Gelsomina, Zampano abandons her to fate.

Each of the three main characters has certain obvious affinities to natural elements. Gelsomina is associated with water; we first encounter her on the beach at her home and throughout the film her returns to the ocean are shown as cleansing and restorative. Giuletta Masinaís performance as Gelsomina is one of the most outstanding features of La Strada and one of the great performances in film history. She displays a perfect balance of innocent vulnerability and sympathetic openness to others that is continually bruised in her dealings with Zampano. In film criticism the word most often used to invoke such a delicate interplay of comedy and pathos is Chaplinesque, and the spirit of Chaplinís "Little Tramp" hovers over Masinaís carefully nuanced performance.

The Fool is associated with the air. As an aerialist and high-wire artist, we first see him high above a crowd of spectators eating a plate of spaghetti, and his costume consists of a pair of wings. The Fool represents a carnivelesque energy which seeks to subvert authority and puncture the masculine pretensions of Zampano. Though brash and egocentric, the Fool possesses a generosity of spirit that makes him an emblem of the artist: the creative individual who reaches out to others through artistic expression. He is a teacher and savior figure in the film, and through "the parable of the pebble" that he teaches Gelsomina, he bestows upon her an understanding and sense of purpose which can redeem even her sad existence. Zampano, in contrast, is a loner and outsider who views other people as either instruments to be bent to his will or obstacles to be overcome and vanquished through brute strength. He is associated with the earth, and with impulses that are base, often animalistic. His violent temper and aggression also make him a figure evocative of fire. Yet most often he conveys a sullen mistrust towards others that reveals his underlying fear. Zampano is like a dog that has been kicked so often he has become hostile and suspicious of everyone he meets.

Felliniís La Strada is fundamentally about different ways of being human, three different ways of interacting with your fellow human beings, and thus about three different ways of finding meaning in human existence. For Gelsomina it is the wide-eyed openness and sensitivity to other beings and forces in the universe that makes her a magical, even holy, presence in the film. She, too, can be seen as a kind of savior through whose death Zampano is finally brought to some kind of emotional and spiritual awakening. For the Fool, the meaning of life is to be found in the play of personal expression, the performance of self for others that has made him a star attraction of the circus. This is also why the Fool is such a fascinating and attractive figure for Gelsomina, despite the fact that he ridicules her and calls her ugly. Still, through the "parable of the pebble," the Fool is able to impart to Gelsomina a sense of her own value and purpose in life that redeems her even in the midst of Zampanoís brutal treatment. However, the interpersonal and existential choices that Zampano makes determine that he will be unable to find any redemptive meaning to existence, any purpose to his endless wanderings as a circus strong man. He seems doomed to continuously perform an act that increasingly becomes a parody of masculinity and male strength and that scarcely conceals his basic loneliness and inability to sympathetically engage with other human beings.

Zampano is the real subject of Felliniís film. Anthony Quinnís brooding, laconic performance as Zampano has the effect of making the character seem remote and distant; he is often seen only on the edges of the frame, in the background, as in the first scene when he comes to purchase Gelsomina and Fellini places him hovering in the background while our attention is focused on the drama of Gelsominaís separation from her family. But his centrality to the film is clearly established by the ending of La Strada. Several years have gone by and the strong man has become noticeably older when he arrives at a seaside village where he hears a young woman singing the plaintive melody that had become Gelsominaís theme. Zampano learns of her death from the young woman. Later in the evening, after his performance, Zampano wanders down to the beach where he is overwhelmed by his thoughts. The final, redemptive moment occurs when he stares up at the stars and begins to cry, signaling the emergence of human emotions which he had long suppressed and denied. But it is too late; Gelsomina is dead, and the humanizing influence of her gentle spirit is lost in the overwhelming sense of grief and isolation experienced by Zampano.

Clearly La Strada can be seen as both a Christian religious parable and an Existentialist philosophical statement. Yet Fellini rejected such obvious interpretive frameworks, preferring instead to create a sense of openness and ambiguity in the film, another indication of Neo-Realismís influence on the director. He specifically removed from early drafts of the script all overt Catholic symbolism and Existentialist didacticism in order to fashion a film of rare visual poetry and emotional impact. Finally, La Strada cannot be reduced to either a religious or philosophical argument. It is a film that must be experienced within the context of each viewerís sense of the human condition and the need for gentleness and companionship that gives human existence whatever sweetness it is capable of possessing. La StradaóThe Road is perhaps a too obvious metaphor for the journey we are all embarked upon; a journey in which how we treat others is inevitably the final measure of our own happiness.

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