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La Strada

by Dave Gourdoux

Anthony Quinn and Giuletta Masina in Federico Fellini's "La Strada"
I’ve written a lot about some very old movies, such as last month’s look at William Wellman’s The OxBow Incident.  I always try to give some historical perspective. With a lifetime love of these movies, it's what I feel I bring to the table.

I recognize that old movies are different than new movies, not just in appearance, as technology has taken film to previously unimaginable places, but in the acting and storytelling as well. Much of this was due to the production code, the conservative censorship board that imposed “decency” rules, such as a man and a woman could not be shown in bed together unless two feet remained on the floor. It’s also because the times were different and audiences were more socially conservative, and demanded that certain cultural values be represented in the product put up on the screen.

One thing that has remained consistent in most Hollywood films through the years is the “give people what they want” approach to making movies. Hollywood has always consisted of a skewed ratio of business men to artists, and these days chance-taking takes a back seat to sequels and special effects extravaganzas and gross-out comedies.

There was a period, right after the demise of the production code and in the infancy of the movie rating system (G, PG, R, X, etc,), that a slew of young directors were given the artistic freedom to make the movies they wanted to make. The result was filmmakers like Kubrick, Altman, Coppola, Polanski, and Scorsese made enduring masterpieces. This era, which lasted about ten years (from about 1968 to 1977) is what I consider to be the golden age of American cinema.

However, that golden age of Hollywood came about twenty years after an even greater renaissance occurred. In fact, many of the best Hollywood films of the '60s and '70s were greatly influenced by films from this era. In the late '40s and '50s, many of the greatest films ever made were made outside of Hollywood, in places like Sweden, France, Italy, and Japan. These films were made without the economic and societal stresses that were limiting Hollywood to its most boring and banal period (the '50s). Look closely at the films to win the best picture Academy Award in the 1950s and you’ll find such atrocities as Cecil B, Demille’s circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth (quite possibly the worst movie to ever win the award), the dreadful Around the World in Eighty Days, the yawner Gigi, and Ben Hur, a cure for insomnia as I challenge anyone to stay awake through its entirety (and odds are you’ll nod off just before the one scene worth watching: the famous chariot race). 

Contrast these with films like DeSica’s The Bicycle Thief, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. These films all told unique stories from unique points of view, they defied convention in storytelling technique, revolutionized technical film making with brilliant and innovative cinematography and editing, featured great performances, and, without censors or bean counters on their backs, fulfilled the vision of some of the greatest artists in film history.

One of my favorite films of this or any other era is Federico Fellini’s unforgettable fable, La Strada (1954). La Strada is so unlike any American film that I love to imagine a young Fellini pitching the story to a Hollywood agent: “There’s this guy, a strong guy who roams the country side breaking chains with his chest, an almost mute young girl joins his act, they become involved with a high wire artist known as 'The Fool,' and they roam from town to town.”  Where are the explosions? Where are the special effects? Where is the sex?

Fellini is often recognized as one of the greatest visual directors of all time. In films like Juliet of the Spirits and 8 1/2 he established himself as a master of surrealism. La Strada isn't nearly as visually complex; in fact, it looks more like a DeSica neo-realist film. But that's not to say the film isn't beautiful. It's stunning--with images that will stay with you forever.

La Strada is essentially a fable, with its moral that everybody has a purpose. Fellini gives us three archetypes: the brutish Zampano (Anthony Quinn), representative of pure physicality; the clever tightrope artist The Fool (Richard Basehart), representative of the mind, or intellect; and the tragically simple Gelsomina (Giuletta  Masina), representative of the heart, of pure emotion. The film is about the interrelationship between these three elements and the role they have to play in maintaining some semblance of balance.

An "artist" at work
As the strong man Zampano, Quinn is brilliant, giving the finest performance in what was a long and prolific career. He fancies himself an artist, performing his act on the street for handouts from the locals, but his act consists of him breaking chains with his chest muscles. There is no nuance, no subtlety, no poetry, none of the elements required to be art. Zampano is too dim to understand this and too self-centered to care. He is essentially an animal.

Richard Basehart and Giuletta Masina
As "The Fool," Richard Basehart is a revelation. He clowns around and can't resist taunting Zampano, who for the most part is an easy target for The Fool's cleverness. Basehart fills the role with acrobatic whimsy, and he's the perfect foil to Quinn's Zampano. He's also a magnet for Gelsomina, who finds in him the opposite of the brutal Zampano.

As Gelsomina, Masina gives one of cinema's iconic performances. The costumes she wears, the way she walks and her facial expressions, the mix of comedy and pathos, bring to mind Charlie Chaplin's "little tramp" character. From the beginning of the film, when she is sold by her mother to Zampano, Gelsomina is a tragic figure, simple and innocent. She is mesmerized by The Fool, who is taken by her charm and innocence. When she tells him she is considering leaving Zampano, The Fool describes his philosophy that everything has a purpose, "even this pebble; even you," and he asks Gelsomina "if you don't love Zampano, who will?"

Gelsominia is buoyed by this, by having a purpose, and she dedicates herself to Zampano, who is too self-absorbed to notice.

The music, scored by the great Nino Rota, is lovely, emotional and powerful. "Gelsomina's Theme" is particularly haunting.

Fellini takes us on the road ("La Strada," translated to English, is "The Street") and we follow Zampano and Gelsomina to the tragic end of their story. Along the way, Fellini has some profound things to say about our place in the universe, the nature of art and the old "art versus life" argument. But at its center, La Strada is about how we relate with one another, and how we find some semblance of meaning in the seemingly black and empty universe.

Fellini was one of film's great poets, and La Strada is one of the most poetic films ever made. The closest any modern director comes to Fellini is probably Tim Burton, who, in films like Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish, demonstrated a similar sensibility.

Fellini once said of La Strada that it's "a complete catalog of my entire mythological world, a dangerous representation of my identity that was undertaken with no precedent whatsoever." This validates the feeling you get watching the film, that it's the realization of an intensely personal vision.

La Strada is my favorite Fellini film, and one of my top five favorite films.  Watch it and see which images stay with you.

Random bit of trivia: Giuletta Masina was, at the time "La Strada" was made, wife to Fellni.  He cast her in several of his films, including "Nights of Cabiria."